Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

1205th Ordinary General Meeting

"The unexpected nuclear renaissance: nuclear techniques benefiting mankind "

Dr Adi Paterson, CEO, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)

Date: Wednesday 7 November 2012 at 6:30 pm

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

Meeting report by Donald Hector

The Society was privileged to have Dr Paterson, chief executive officer of ANSTO, address our meeting on Wednesday 7 November in Sydney.

There has been great excitement in recent months with reports that two experiments at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had detected phenomena indicating the existence of the Higgs boson. The CERN LHC is the current pinnacle of cyclotron accelerator technology that was first developed in the 1930s. Not only is this technology at the forefront of experimental physics but the spin-offs, such as PET imaging and hadron therapy have been major developments in medical diagnosis and treatment. There are now over 860 cyclotrons worldwide, with 11 of these in Australia.

The cyclotron is one of two great traditions in nuclear physics – the other is the research nuclear reactor. Generally, nuclear isotopes that are useful for diagnosis can be generated in cyclotrons while the radioactive isotopes for therapy are more often produced in nuclear reactors, such as the Opal Research Reactor at Lucas Heights. An example of the use of isotopes in the diagnosis of disease is early detection of Alzheimer's dementia. Alzheimer's is difficult to diagnose in its early stages and, often, can only be positively identified post-mortem. However, positron emission tomography (PET) scanning technology can detect markers that appear to be associated with abnormal amyloid-beta production, a phenomenon that appears to be associated with Alzheimer's disease. PET diagnostic techniques utilise a radiopharmaceutical compound called florbetapir-fluorine-18 that contains the radionuclide fluorine-18. Fluorine-18 is a radioisotope of fluorine that emits positrons as it decays and these can be detected in a PET scanner. It has a short half-life (about 110 minutes) and has essentially disappeared from the body in about 12 hours. Similar techniques are also being used in diagnosing the effects haemorrhagic stroke and progress of insulin cells in diabetes patients.

The Opal Research Reactor at Lucas Heights is an important source of short half-life isotopes used for a variety of medical and non-medical purposes. These can be as diverse as researching the structure and physics of new generation batteries, sensing explosives using photo luminescent films, understanding the morphology and structure of organic light-emitting diodes (an important new technology), studying the structure of cell membranes, stress evaluation in steel (for example, analysing the heads of railway track in order to predict failure). Medical treatment is a critical role for the Opal Reactor, particularly for supplying short-lived isotopes for radiation treatment of cancer patients.

The other important facility in Australian nuclear physics is the Australian Synchrotron that is being used for medical imaging and therapy and a range of other applications. One of the critical applications for the synchrotron is protein crystallography. This technology emerged from Nobel Prize-winning work in determining the structure of various proteins, that could not be done otherwise.

The important message that we were left with is that the Australian Synchrotron and the Opal Reactor are complimentary technologies. Together they provide critically important resources in a range of Australian industries from medical diagnosis and treatment to latest technologies across a variety of science and engineering applications. Furthermore, they give us a place at the table internationally in leading-frontier "big science".

1204th Ordinary General Meeting

"Outsmarting Superbugs?"

Professor Liz Harry, Professor of Biology, School of Medical and Molecular Sciences, University of Technology Sydney

Date: Wednesday 3 October 2012 at 6:30 pm

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

Meeting report by James Kehoe and Jude Allen

Bacterial infections have become increasingly resistant to current antibiotics. The ability of bacteria to adapt rapidly to their environments, including the presence of antibiotics, is outstripping our ability to discover and refine novel agents. Bacterial infections have become increasingly resistant to current antibiotics. The ability of bacteria to adapt rapidly to their environments, including the presence of antibiotics, is outstripping our ability to discover and refine novel agents.

At the 1204th OGM, Professor Liz Harry of the University of Technology Sydney delivered a lively and informative talk concerning the role of bacteria in our lives, the mechanisms by which they adapt, and tests of alternative methods for defeating them without producing resistant strains.

Prof. Harry first provided an overview of bacteria, particularly their prevalence in nearly every possible habitat on Earth. Nearly every surface – large or small – is covered by bacteria, as either free-living individual cells or in multicellular aggregates embedded in a self-produced extracellular polymeric substance, known more colloquially as "slime". These biofilms can be particularly resistant to antibiotics.

In both these forms, bacteria constitute a total biomass that exceeds that of all plants and animals, even though an individual bacterium is typically a few micrometres length. Within human bodies bacteria, living most notably on our skin, in our digestive tracts, and in our respiratory tracts, outnumber human cells, possibly by a factor of ten. Prof. Harry quipped that we are more bacterium than human. Commercial advertisements often paint bacteria as agents of disease that must be eradicated, preferably by the advertiser's product. In fact, the bulk of bacteria in and around humans are harmless or long-ago neutralised by our immune system. An attempt eradicate all bacteria from humans, apart from being futile, is likely to provide an opening for invasion by dangerous species. According to Prof Harry, ordinary cleanliness, especially hand-washing, is sufficient to wash away invaders while retaining our familiar and possibly protective bacteria. The ability of bacteria to adapt rapidly to new antibiotics is enhanced by the multiple ways by which they can introduce genetic variation. On the one hand, the most familiar form of bacterial reproduction is asexual cell division. Through this mechanism, bacteria can proliferate at astonishing rates, but evolution through cell division would have to rely entirely on random mutation to produce variation, which would leave bacteria largely open to attack by antibiotics.

On the other hand, bacteria readily recombine genetic material by a variety of methods, which include:

  • Conjugation, sometimes called "bacterial sex," in which DNA is passed from one bacterium to another by a tube called a pilus.
  • Transformation, in which bacteria incorporate DNA floating in their environment, often originating from dead bacterial cells.
  • Transduction, in which bacteria exchange DNA via viral infection and reproduction.

Notwithstanding attempts to identify new antibiotic agents, bacteria seem to have the upper hand through rapid adaptation to any single agent. The best strategy appears to be a combined approach, in which a diversity of agents simultaneously attack different pathways and structures in bacteria, thus flooding their adaptive capability. Rather than trying to synthesize a joint agent, one answer may already be available in the form of honey, which has long been a traditional remedy for a variety of conditions and injuries. Prof. Harry showed photographs of a case in which honey-impregnated dressings helped to heal infected skin ulcerations that had resisted other antibiotic treatments.

Prof. Harry and her colleagues have been experimentally testing the ability of honey to serve as a topical antibiotic. Honey appears to have a general antibiotic property that allows it to be safely stored by bees and on our kitchen shelves for extended periods. Some honeys seem to possess strong antibacterial properties, including a variety from New Zealand. The unique factor appears to arise from the nectar of certain plants; in Prof. Harry's case, it is the Manuka plant. Prof. Harry suspects that the antibacterial properties of honey rely on the joint effect of a host of factors contained in the honey.

Prof. Harry concluded that, thanks to the effectiveness of antibiotics, modern society has become a bit blasé about basic cleanliness and too reliant on expecting a quick fix. At the same time, research on antibacterial agents of all varieties has languished, because effective antibiotics, which are commonly used for brief periods of time for acute conditions, are relatively unprofitable compared to drugs for managing chronic conditions, for example, hypertension.

1202nd Ordinary General Meeting

"Photaonic circuits for the new information age: faster, smaller, smarter and
greener"

Professor Ben Eggleton, Professor of Physics,

ARC Federation Fellow, Director of the Centre of Excellence for Ultrahigh-bandwidth Devices for
Optical Systems (CUDOS) and Director of the Institute of Photonics and Optical Science (IPOS)

Date: Wednesday 1 August 2012 at 6:30 pm

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

Meeting report by Donald Hector

The ARC Centre for Excellence for Ultrahigh-Bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS) is a world-leader in research in photonics and the development of photonic devices. Its director, Professor Ben Eggleton, gave a wide-ranging talk about the Centre's work and photonics generally.

The use of light to communicate information is by no means a novel concept. Signals such as flags and lights for sending information have been used for many hundreds if not thousands of years. In the last couple of hundred years, various systems have been devised such as collimators and various lens systems. Three major breakthroughs of the last half-century or so were the invention of microelectronic devices, the invention of the laser and, importantly, the discovery by Charles Kao in 1966 that the physical properties of glass fibres were ideal for transmitting optical signals. Photonics, which combines these technologies, provides extraordinary capability for extremely high-speed transmission of data through optical fibre.

The reason that glass fibre is suitable is that there is a narrow part of the absorption spectrum in glass about 25 THz wide where attenuation of the signal is only about 0.2 dB per kilometre. Lasers can generate discrete packets of visible light light that can be transmitted down the fibre. Importantly, the photons do not interfere with one another and can be separated at the other end and the data encoded in the packets of light can be read. The relatively small signal loss can be managed by periodically installing amplifiers along the fibre-optic cable. There are now fibre-optic networks joining all major continents and these are the primary means for moving digitised data around the world.

A significant advantage of this fibre-optic technology has been its scalability. Developments in photonics and vastly increased the capacity of fibre-optic cables since the first ones were laid over 20 years ago. The National Broadband Network that Australia is currently installing is intended to deliver 1 Mb per second to well over 90% of households in Australia. There has been some speculation that this may become obsolete but this is unlikely as technological pathways to upgrade this to one terabit per second are already on the horizon.

One of the areas that CUDOS is working in is the application of nanotechnology and the development of materials with physical properties that do not occur in nature. These are giving rise to some novel applications such as "cloaking" (where photonics can be applied to make things appear invisible in certain parts of the spectrum). Other real possibilities of nanotechnologies are the development of a three-dimensional microchips that would allow major steps forward in processing speed.

Although in principle, photons do not interact with one another in a vacuum, in a medium such as glass, high-intensity laser excitation can cause a non-linear response of the glass medium and cause the photons to interact with one another. Conceptually, this may make possible the development of ultrahigh speed devices, switching as quickly as 1 trillionth of a second. This would make them up to 1000 times faster than current optical devices.

The Centre for Excellence for Ultrahigh-Bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems is recognised as one of the top few photonics research centres in the world. It is a collaboration of eight of Australia's top universities and number of industry participants. Expectations are high that it will make a major contribution in the emerging field of photonics.

The Dirac Lecture 2012

The accelerating universe

Thursday, 19 July 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1201st Ordinary General Meeting

"Autoimmune diseases: obesity, nutrition, exercise and eating disorders: what shape are Australians in?"

Professor Ian Caterson AM, Boden Professor of Human Nutrition, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney.

Date: Wednesday 4 July 2012 at 6:30 pm

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

Meeting report by Donald Hector

At 1201st Ordinary General Meeting of the Society held at the Union University and Schools Club on Wednesday 4 July 2012, Professor Ian Caterson AM talked about the serious obesity epidemic that confronts Australia. This is not confined to Australia – it is a major health problem all developed countries and increasing alarmingly in the developing world, due to the low cost and ready availability of high-energy foods.

Professor Caterson discussed how the epidemiology involved. From the time of World War II when there was worldwide food rationing to the present, where there is generally a surplus of food, average weight has consistently increased. Currently, young adults are gaining, on average, 1 kg per year. The problem is not how much you weigh, rather it is how fat you are. More particularly the problem is how much visceral fat you have (visceral fat sits around the organs inside the abdominal cavity). Unfortunately for many of us "the fatter you are, the younger you die". A good indicator of obesity due to visceral fat is body-mass index (BMI), defined as your mass in kilograms divided by the square of your height in metres. Normal BMI is in the range of 18.5-24.9. A BMI in the range of 25-29.9 is considered to be pre-obese and a BMI of over 30 is considered to be obese. In Australia, 62% of men and about 50% of women have a BMI greater than 25.

Obesity is implicated in a wide range of debilitating disorders: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, sleep apnoea, hypertension, cancer and infertility (the average BMI of women enrolled in fertility programmes is 32. Losing 6 kg in weight increases fertility fifteen-fold).

At a BMI of about 25 (which is about the median in Australia) the biggest health risk is developing diabetes. Professor Caterson gave interesting case of Sumo wrestlers. They eat a high fat diet (in excess of 6,000 calories per day) but they are very strong and very fit. But when they stop fighting, within a year, 35% of them have developed diabetes and many die of heart disease in their 40s. While they are fit all their weight is outside their abdominal cavity but when they stop fighting and lose their fitness, their visceral fat increases rapidly.

Professor Caterson discussed the impact of this major health issue in terms of "disability-adjusted life-years lost". This is an indicator used by the World Health Organisation that combines into a single measure the debilitating effects of serious disease and mortality. The bad news is that if you smoke, are obese, and you are physically inactive you can look forward to losing about 14 years of good-quality life. But the news was not all bad.

In epidemiological terms, for every kilogram you lose, your death rate decreases by 6%. Changing diet can have a big impact. Eating slightly smaller portions, increasing protein, reducing saturated fat intake (replacing it where possible with monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil), increasing dietary fibre, eating fresh fruit and vegetables and getting regular exercise (ideally, one-two hours a day) can have a relatively quick and significant impact on BMI and overall health.

1203rd Ordinary General Meeting

"Climate change, regional drought and forest mortality: are we seeing a new global phenomenon"

Professor Derek Eamus is a plant physiologist and ecophysiologist who leads the
Terrestrial Ecohydrology Research Group within the Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster at the University of Technology Sydney.

Date: Wednesday 4 July 2012 at 6:30 pm

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

Meeting report by Donald Hector

Around the world, forests seem to be under stress. At the 1203rd OGM, Professor Derek Eamus, a plant physiologist at University of Technology Sydney, gave a fascinating talk on what is causing the major problems in the world's forests and the implications if there is a substantial increase in global temperatures. In every continent there are numerous examples of forest die-back in recent years. Understanding the background of this is critical given the importance of forests in the global ecosystem. Forests are large repositories of carbon, have a large influence on the way in which water moves through the environment, are important for biodiversity, have a major impact on the absorption of energy from the sun and have high amenity value.

There are two theories to explain die-back of forest during drought conditions. The first of these is carbon starvation. This is an important factor in forest health particularly with isohydric trees species (isohydric trees are those that regulate water flow in order to maintain canopy humidity within a relatively narrow range. They do this through opening and closing leaf stomata in response to changes in humidity). When the stomata close, no carbon dioxide can enter the leaf. One response of isohydric trees to drought conditions is to close the stomata in order to preserve water. Thus, during a protracted drought, the tree closes the stomata close and cannot absorb carbon dioxide and will gradually starve to death.

The second theory is that forests die due to hydraulic failure. This is a particular problem with anisohydric species (unlike isohydric trees these do not respond to drought by closing stomata, so the tree continues to absorb carbon dioxide). The problem is that if the ground water availability drops too low, there is insufficient water potential causing embolism in the xylem (the fine tubes that conduct water from the root system to the leaves) and this interrupts water flow to the leaf system.

Catastrophic failure of forests during drought conditions seems to be related to one or other of these effects. Observation suggests that droughts of long duration cause hydraulic failure, whereas drought soft high-intensity cause carbon failure followed by hydraulic failure. These observations may have substantial implications for Australia's forests. Australia has highly variable rainfall and the annual evaporation in many areas is higher than the annual rainfall. River discharges are also much lower than other than Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas. The accepted wisdom is that temperature is the main determinant of forest mortality due to drought and usually occurs a couple of years after the drought finishes.

Professor Eamus and his co-worker, Nicolas Boulain, have developed a conceptual model that relates duration of drought conditions and their intensity to the reasons for forest failure. They question the conventional wisdom that temperature is the most influential determinant. They have developed a mechanistic model of forest behaviour that disaggregates a number of the parameters that of been incorporated into the highly sophisticated soil-plant-atmosphere (SPA) models. One important parameter is the vapour pressure deficit (VPD), a measure of canopy humidity. Modelling 15 scenarios indicated that temperature stress is not a major determinant of forest mortality; what is important is VPD. It is the combination of an unusually high temperatures and very dry conditions thereby reducing VPD that does the damage. They conclude that VPD is an important parameter that needs to be included in climate models.

1200th Ordinary General Meeting

"Transit of Venus 2012 - what we and others saw."

Dr. Andrew Jacob, Assistant Curator, Sydney Observatory.

Date: Wednesday 6 June 2012 at 6:30 pm

Venue: Sydney Observatory, Observatory Hill, Sydney.

Meeting report by Donald Hector

Early in the 17th century, Johannes Kepler predicted that every 120 years or so Venus would pass between the Earth and the Sun and on each occasion, there would actually be two transits about seven years apart. This was a particularly important prediction: Kepler's third Law had provided the means to accurately calculate of the relative distances of each of the planets from the sun but there was no way to determine the absolute distance between them. By observing a transit of Venus from different points on the Earth, observing the times at which the transits start and finish and the exact location of the observation it is relatively simple to calculate the absolute distance between the Earth and Sun (referred to as one Astronomical Unit). From Kepler's third Law it is then possible to calculate the distance of the other planets from the sun but, more importantly, it then enables the calculation of distant astronomical bodies using the Astronomical Unit as a baseline.

The Society was fortunate to be able to mark the transit of Venus at the Sydney Observatory with a talk given by Dr Andrew Jacob, the Observatory's assistant curator. Not only is the transit of Venus an important and rare astronomical event, astronomy and, in particular, the transit of Venus, play and important part in both the history of Australia and history of the Society.

The first predicted transit was in 1631 but there is no record of any successful observation is being made. The next, in 1639, was observed by Jeremiah Horrocks who was able to calculate the Astronomical Unit to an accuracy of about 50%. The next pair of transits were in 1761 and 1769. Lieutenant James Cook was ordered to sail to Tahiti to observe the 1769 transit which he did successfully and the rest, as they say, is history.

The next pair of transits in the 19th century (1874 and 1882) were observed using much more sophisticated instruments, including photography and these observations enabled very precise estimates of the Astronomical Unit.

The first of the 21st-century transits in 2004 was noted as an interesting phenomenon but not of any particular scientific importance. However, in the few years between 2004 and the 2012 transit, the discovery of hundreds of "exo-planets" (planets orbiting far-away stars) led astronomers to realise that precise observations of the phenomena caused by the transit of Venus could allow a much more precise and detailed characterisation of exo-planets.

It is notable that the Royal Society of NSW traces its origins to 1821 when the Philosophical Society of Australasia invited the Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, to become its first president. Brisbane was a keen astronomer and made important contributions to the science both in Australia and when he returned to Scotland.

The Four Societies Lecture 2012

Lecture delivered at the annual meeting of the Royal Society of NSW,

the Australian Nuclear Association, the Nuclear Panel of Engineers Australia, the and Australian Institute of Energy.

"Counting atoms for a living"

Dr Andrew Smith, ANSTO

Date: Wednesday 7 March 2012 at 6:00 pm

Venue: Hamilton Room, Trade & Investment Centre, Industry & Investment NSW, Level 47, MLC Centre, 19 Martin Place, Sydney.

Meeting report by Donald Hector

Andrew Smith counts cosmogenic radionucleides for a living! These are radioactive cosmic rays (or, more accurately, cosmic particles) most of which are generated in the Sun and the far reaches of the universe. The facilities at ANSTO users accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) which is an assembly of tandem accelerators to detect rare isotopes of intermediate half-life.

Cosmic rays were discovered in 1904. They are energetic particles that impinge upon the Earth's atmosphere – about 90% are protons, 10% are helium nuclei (alpha particles) and less than 1% are heavier" nuclei. They are generated by the Sun, supernova and what astronomers refer to as "unknown events". When these particles hit the Earth's atmosphere and collide with other molecules, the products of these collisions can be observed and measured.

One of the applications of this technology is in carbon-dating. Carbon-dating technology relies on the fact that the atmospheric concentration of the 14C, the radioactive isotope of carbon, is constant with about 7.5 kg being produced in the atmosphere every year. While an organism is alive, it is in equilibrium of the atmosphere. When it dies the "clock" starts because 14C update ceases and radioactive decay gradually reduces the 14C concentration. The older technology is radiometry which is a passive technique that requires a relatively large sample (up to several grams) but using AMS (the ANSTO equipment uses the 2 MV STAR accelerator) is an "active" only requires a much smaller sample of around 0.1 mg.

One area of particular interest for Dr Smith and his team is using is highly sensitive analytical technique to examine the polar sheet in Antarctica. As it falls, snow traps atmospheric gas and particles and once the ice has accumulated to it thickness of 50-100 m, the air pockets are closed off, trapping the gas. To investigate theories relating to climate change, establishing historical concentrations of greenhouse gases is of particular interest. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide (these three constitute only about 0.1% of the atmosphere) are trapped in the bubbles in the ice. Both natural sources of methane (termites, geologically produced methane, clathrates – these are methane molecules trapped in a cage of water molecules due to very high pressure and are found extensively in deep parts of the ocean – and anaerobic decay) and anthropogenic sources (landfills, livestock, rice cultivation, and waste water treatment) each has its own unique signature of carbon isotopes.

The experimental work being done in ANSTO over the last several years has been drilling down to extract cores from ice which has been deposited over several thousand years. Large quantities of ice are needed to get even the tiny samples needed for analysis (Dr Smith's recent expedition to the area near Casey base collected 7½ tons of ice). Once the samples go through a very careful preparation process and are analysed (including corrections for cosmic ray generation of 14C and the changes in 14C concentration caused by nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s when its concentration doubled) some very interesting information emerges. For example, historically there have been some very sharp changes in methane concentration. This could be due to clathrates releasing their methane in previous eras. If so, this indicate a major problem should global warming cause large methane releases either from clathrates or peat bogs as permafrost melts.

Another area of investigation that ANSTO is pursuing is whether there is a connection between sunspot activity and climate change. Historical astronomical records suggest that during the Maunder minimum (a period that has been described as "a mini ice age" in Europe from about 1635 to 1700) sunspot activity was unusually low. The first step is to measure the ratio of 7Be to 10Be which is well correlated to sunspot activity. This investigation is very complex and will have some years to run while such issues as beryllium transfer through the ice sheet needs to be understood. Dr Smith's team is at the cutting-edge of climate change research and is just one example of ANSTO's unique contribution to world-leading science.

The Royal Society of NSW Forum 2012

"The influence of media on scientific research"

Mark Scott AO, Managing Director of the ABC and Professor Jill Trewhella FRSN,

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Sydney.

Date: Wednesday 7 March 2012 at 6:30 pm

Venue: Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo.

Meeting report by Donald Hector

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

Mark pointed out that the role of national broadcasters (originally established to produce programmes that commercial companies could not or would not) has changed very significantly. The internet has made available thousands of TV and radio stations worldwide. The consumer is flooded with content. Gone are the days when listeners needed a licence – now all that is necessary is an internet connection. Nor are there barriers to entry for broadcasters. There are over 200 million web-sites worldwide and 60,000 blogs are introduced to the internet every day.

The role of the ABC is now even more important than it was formerly. It now provides a "town square" for content and opinion. It provides a broad plurality of views. Whereas the challenge for science is the narrowness of focus of much research is, the ABC provides a place where there is breadth not narrowness of interest. The gap between the ABC and content providers is growing every day due to the challenge facing commercial providers in delivering a profit in a rapidly changing media sector. The challenge for scientists is to become effective communicators and, particularly, to cultivate interest among journalists.

Jill said how important it was to have institutions like the ABC that produce quality content and encourage public education and debate. The key roles of the media are to educate, to inspire and to promote public discourse, particularly as the world faces critical issues, not least the state of the natural world.

Nonetheless it is regrettable that the media often confuse opinion, fact and belief. Too much of the current debate focuses on belief. But belief is not important in many issues – what is important are matters of fact. This is particularly significant in major issues such as health and climate change where scientific knowledge is important. For example, in health investment in research is generally seen as overwhelmingly good. And it probably is but what about the unavoidable trade-offs in research in other areas? It is also regrettable that advertising is a major influence on public opinion and political processes.

Robyn then moderated a discussion that included questions from the audience and covered such issues as the "priesthood status" of peer-review, the polarisation of public opinion, climate change, the state of critical argument in Australia and the necessity for the scientists to produce a compelling story in order to engage the media.

The Forum was broadcast on ABC Radio National's Big Ideas on Thursday 17 May 2012: click broadcast to download the programme.

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