Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

1215th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

"Astrobiology: the latest from 'Curiosity'" - Professor Malcolm Walter

"Seven seconds of terror" was how the operators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US describe the landing of 'Curiosity", the latest rover mission that landed on Mars in August last year. In the last stage of the landing, the entry vehicle hovered about 80 m above the surface of Mars and lowered Curiosity (which weighs nearly a tonne) by cranes to a gentle touch-down. Given that it can take up to 20 minutes for signals to reach Mars (or a up to a 40 minute round-trip) there is a significant delay that constrains the Earth-based control station.

The purpose of the curiosity mission is to understand the geological and biological context to determine whether life may have existed or, indeed, still exist on Mars. Mars is somewhat smaller than the Earth with the surface area of Mars being about the same as the exposed surface area of the Earth's continents. Until as recently as 60 years ago, up it was thought that advanced life may have once existed on Mars and could have been responsible for the canals and other geological phenomena that have been observed through telescopes. It is now thought that the most advanced form of life to be possible on Mars would be single cell organisms, probably similar to those that existed on earth in the early stages of life. To put this in perspective life first appeared on earth about 3500 million years ago and, until about 500 million years ago, consisted entirely of single cell organisms. Nearly all of the diversity of life on earth is microscopic, so it makes sense to look for this as the first signs of life in other places in the universe.

One way to understand what early life might look like is to examine geological formations in very old rocks, such as the 3,500 million-year-old rocks in the Pilbara. Fortunately, these rocks are of great interest to geologists because they often hold valuable mineral deposits, so quite a lot is known about them. They are known to have been formed by volcanic action, so a second, complimentary approach is to see what forms of life exist in active volcanoes. One such volcano is White Island in New Zealand. Single cell life forms have been found there in water up to 123°C, so it is now known that life can exist from about -30°C to over 120°C.

In order to try to understand the evolutionary context of these single cell organisms, biologists look at bio-markers in the geological samples that are characteristic of life and see how these evolve. This is analogous to looking at skeleton evolution in more advanced life forms. Already, a great deal has been learned about the geological environment on Mars. An early mission, Phoenix, found ice at northern latitudes. The channels suggest that there was flowing liquid at one point in Mars' geological history. That was almost certainly water. Imaging shows that there is still channel formation taking place on the surface of Mars now which suggests that at times at least there is fluid flow. It is too cold for pure water, so if indeed this turns out to be due to rivers, they would have to be highly saline to be liquid at these temperatures.

Earlier investigations suggested that there was methane in the Martian atmosphere, however Curiosity has found none. The earlier observations are now thought to be due to a C-13 isotope of methane in the earth's atmosphere.

Curiosity is an extremely expensive mission – it takes 265 people every day to keep it running but the contribution to our understanding of Mars and the origins of the solar system and, by implication other phenomena in the universe is enormous. There are a further 15 missions planned by various public and private agencies over the next decade or so.

1214th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

"Open science" - Dr Matthew Todd

The speaker at the Society's 1214th ordinary general meeting was Dr Matthew Todd, a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Sydney who is a leading proponent of the concept of "open science".

Dr Todd began with an example of the type of problem to which open science can provide a very practical solution. In Africa and parts of South America and Asia, the parasitic disease schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia or snail fever) is endemic. Schistosomiasis is caused by infection by water-borne parasites that penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. Although the mortality rate is low, schistosomiasis is a serious chronic illness. It is particularly devastating to children – it damages internal organs, impairs growth and causes cognitive impairment. After malaria, it is the most socio-economically devastating disease in the world.

Schistosomiasis can be treated by a drug called praziquantel that is inexpensive and is administered orally. The problem is that praziquantel tablets are very bitter to the taste and, consequently, many people do not complete the course of treatment. But praziquantel is an organic molecule that exists as two stereoisomers (stereoisomers are molecules that exist in two forms, one being the mirror-image of the other in much the same way as the is the left hand is the mirror-image of the right hand). Often in pharmacology, only one of the stereoisomers has the desired physiological effect and, indeed, this is the case with praziquantel. The "R" stereoisomer kills the parasite and does not have an unpleasant taste. The "S" stereoisomer is inactive and, fortuitously, is entirely responsible for the bitter taste. So why not simply make the R-form? Unfortunately, both forms are produced together in the reactions which are commonly used for synthesising this drug and are not easily separated in the manufacturing process. The best solution is to find catalysts and reaction conditions that favour the production of the desired stereoisomer over the other. However, there is no public funding available for the research and private enterprise will not fund it because the drug is so cheap that the financial return too low.

Another problem is that the normal research paradigm is sequential: a research grant is awarded; the work is done; the results are published and if encouraging, will perhaps result in further research grant. This can be dreadfully slow and a far more efficient way of solving complex problems of this nature is to have collaborative research that can proceed concurrently rather than sequentially - parallel rather than serial processing, as it were. There are number of examples of this type of collaboration being successful in areas such as astronomy, mathematics and biology. Dr Todd and his group at Sydney University explored using the open science approach to develop the manufacturing approach for the active, tasteless R-stereoisomer of praziquantel.

This approach resulted in rapid progress through collaboration of groups around the world, with at least two routes identified as potential practical manufacturing steps.

Dr Todd argues that the whole process of science is based on openness, the sharing of results and collaboration. Issues around patterns can be important but many of the key discoveries of the last century or so have not been subject to patent protection.

The Poggendorf Lecture 2013

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

"Biodiversity and the future of agriculture" - Professor Geoff Gurr

After a hiatus of 20 years, the Poggendorf Lecture was delivered in conjunction with Charles Sturt University, Orange, on Tuesday, 13 August 2013. The lecture was delivered by Professor Geoff Gurr, a biologist and entomologist and Professor of Applied Ecology at Charles Sturt University, where he specialises in the utilisation of natural solutions to control agricultural pests to partially or completely replace synthetic pesticides.

The population of the world is increasing by 170,000 souls per day. Currently, 40% of land is used for some agricultural purpose and the demand for agricultural products is expected to increase not only as a consequence of population growth but by the increasing living standards of people in the developing world. For example, the growth in meat demand is very strong and it takes 10 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of animal protein. This leads to the conclusion that food production needs to double by 2050. The so-called "green revolution" of the last few decades has enabled the increase in food production to largely match population growth, largely through the application of nitrogen, phosphorus, some trace elements, water and the wide-scale use of pesticides. But was this revolution truly "green"? Human inputs are largely non-renewable but, importantly, do not actually address the root cause of the problem – pest outbreaks are not due to a lack of pesticide, they are due to other imbalances in the environment. So the world is faced with a "wicked problem" of seeking food security, having finite renewable resources, a declining availability of agricultural land, changing climate and a moral obligation to preserve biodiversity (human activity, including agriculture, causes biodiversity loss at a rate about 10,000 times greater than the background rate).

Sustainable agricultural practices that are emerging can be considered in three areas: genetic (utilising the natural defence mechanisms identified in certain species and transferring these to other species); species (utilising the natural enemies of pests in order to control population); and ecosystems (developing landscapes that have high biodiversity that tends to equilibrate around sustainable species populations).

The thrust of Professor Gurr's work is that by integrating diverse approaches, including biological, cultural and chemical controls, hazards to humans and the environment can be minimised and, in many cases, productivity of agricultural systems can be improved. The principle underlying this is the acknowledgement that agricultural landscapes benefit from biodiversity and that this has significant benefit in terms of ecosystem services such as pollination of crops, reducing erosion, reducing contamination of water courses with excess nutrients and biological control of crop pests.

Generally, the greater the biological diversity, the fewer the pests. This is because the natural activity of predators, parasites and pathogens maintain potential pests' population densities at a lower level than would occur in their absence. In the case of monocultures, this balance is often upset, enabling the density of pests to get to plague proportions. The widely accepted agricultural response to this is to use synthetic pesticides which often exacerbate the problem by further reducing biological diversity. In turn, the levels of artificial agents required to control pests increases with the consequent damage to the environment.

Professor Gurr described an example in China where rice production was being severely affected by a particular species of plant hopper. This species had evolved resistance to insecticides and was substantially reducing rice yield. Professor Gurr's group investigated the use of bund walls used to retain water in rice fields to plant vegetation selected because it was a host to predators for this species as plant hopper. They also introduced another species of plant hopper that did not affect rice yield and attacked the pest species. In addition, they planted species of flowers that attracted parasitic wasps that attacked the pest species. The result was a substantial reduction in the pest species, leading to significantly increased rice field, with secondary benefits, for example increase in the frog population.

There is a common misconception that this type of biological control can have negative impact on yield but a meta-analysis of 286 projects demonstrated an average 80% increase in yield. The "green" approach to pest management potentially could double food production in 10 years: the challenge is to identify the value of ecosystem services and how to utilise them.

Historically, agricultural science has focused on agricultural production and environmental science has focused on protecting the environment – these have coexisted almost as separate disciplines. If food security is to be accomplished in the next few decades, there needs to be an integration of agricultural and environmental protection practices. China has been very active in this. 24% of agricultural land in China has been allocated some form of conservation status. Similarly in Europe, there is a trend towards farmers being encouraged to consider themselves as stewards of the land, rather than owners.

Regrettably, Australia is not leading the way in this area. Nonetheless, there are examples of this type of approach such as "alley farming" that provide shelter for natural species and encourages biological diversity thereby reducing significantly the requirement for synthetic pesticides.

Professor Gurr concluded by observing that the world cannot double food production with the current agricultural practices – they are simply unsustainable. If we learn to value ecosystem services, in particular recognising the importance of biodiversity, doubling food production, a requirement to feed the projected world population is both achievable and potentially beneficial to the global ecosystem.

1213th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

"How numbers came to rule the world: the impact of Luca Pacioli,
Leonardo da Vinci and the merchants of Venice on Wall Street" - Jane

At the 1213th meeting of the Society at the Powerhouse Museum on Wednesday, 7 August 2013, Jane Gleeson-White outlined the argument she presented in her best-selling book Double Entry, the history of the impact of double-entry accounting on the development the capitalist model that has shaped Western civilisation.

Until the 13th century, the prevailing arithmetic system used in Europe was the Roman system which largely precluded complex operation such as multiple cache on and vision. During the Renaissance, the Hindu-Arabic number system and algebra was introduced. One major figure in this was Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli, a Renaissance monk and mathematician, a colleague of Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci.

Pacioli wrote a number of major texts on mathematics and was one of the great influences on the development of maths during the Renaissance. He lived for a time in Venice and the merchants there were quick to introduce his system of double-entry book-keeping to record their mercantile transactions. (The double-entry system requires there to be two accounts for every transaction: one a credit account, the other debit account. For every creditor there must be a debtor; and for every debtor there must be a creditor.)

Although merchants had recorded their transactions from Phoenician times, these records were largely narrative in nature. The merchants of Venice were able to abstract and summarise financial performance into a single accounting system that was independent of the goods being transacted. Over the next couple for centuries the double-entry bookkeeping system was adopted first throughout Europe and into the rest of the world.

Gleeson-White argues that this innovation was fundamental to the development of capitalism and the consumer-oriented economic system that prevails worldwide today. It led to the system of national accounts that is used by governments that distils all human activity into a single number: gross domestic product or GDP. She further argues that double-entry book-keeping was a major influence on the scientific revolution and that together these led to the industrialisation of the world and the unsustainable stress that it is currently facing. These claims are not uncontentious and there was a lively discussion after the talk.

Jane's talk was broadcast by the ABC on Radio National's Big Ideas on Tuesday 3 September 2013. Click 1213th OGM to download the RN broadcast.

1212th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday 3 July 2013

"Caring for highly processed wood pulp? The role of the State library in the 21st century" - Dr Alex Byrne

At the 1212th ordinary general meeting the Society on Wednesday, 3 July 2013, we were delighted to welcome Dr Alex Byrne, State Librarian and Chief Executive of the State Library of NSW. Dr Byrne gave a wide-ranging talk about the State Library and the extraordinarily valuable collection that it holds.

The State of NSW is fortunate to have perhaps the most important collection in Australia. There is no other state library that is its equal and the only Australian library that might come close is the National Library in Canberra. The State library is a library of deposit (meaning that there is a legal requirement for every printed publication produced in State of NSW to lodge a copy with a library. There are two other libraries of deposit in NSW – the Parliamentary Library and Fisher Library at the University of Sydney). The collection that the Library houses extends to 138 linear kilometres of shelf-space and this is being added to at a rate of 2 linear km per year. The collection represents one of the major assets of the State of NSW and is valued at $2.1 billion.

Examples of important items that the Library holds are the stern-plate of HMS Resolution (James Cook's ship on his second and ill-fated third voyages) and Cook's ammunition belt. There is an extensive World War I collection and of particular importance are personal diaries kept by soldiers. Many soldiers kept these small, notebook-size dairies and they give deep insight into the personal experiences of the writers. There is even one diary that was written by an Australian General, despite these being strictly against regulations.

The collection is diverse and is not restricted to printed materials. There are many important paintings, the entire collection from the Packer Press of newspaper photographs (over 350,000 images) and a wide variety of other artefacts that give the enormous insight into the cultural narrative that has unfolded over the last 200 years or so (the Library started as the Australian Subscription Library in 1826).

Unfortunately, much of the collection is on media that does not last well. For example wood-pulp paper and many of the digital media of the last 30 or 40 years start deteriorating within 20-30 years. Currently, the most practical solution to this problem is to digitise the collection and the Library has been fortunate to receive a government grant of $32.6 million over the next four years to renew the digitisation infrastructure, with a further $32 million over the subsequent six years to commence digitisation of the collection. Even with this substantial sum of over $60 million to be spent over 10 years only about 6% of the collection will be converted into searchable, digital form.

The Library also houses a substantial collection on behalf of the Royal Society of NSW and we intend to work with State library to make this important collection more accessible.

Royal Society of NSW Forum 2013

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Royal Society of NSW Forum 2013 was held at the Powerhouse Museum on Thursday 6 June before a large audience.Antony Funnell of the ABC's Radio National moderated the discussion between:

  • Professor Brian Schmidt AC FRSN, Nobel Prize winner
  • Professor Steven Schwartz AM, former Macquarie University Vice Chancellor
  • Ms Judith Wheeldon AM, former Principal of both Queenwood School for Girls and Abbotsleigh
  • Professor Merlin Crossley, Dean of Science at the University of NSW

Among other questions, our panellists discussed: will a falling focus on science and technology in education really be a problem for innovation in Australia? Is it a matter of basic education? Is it poor teaching? Is there a fundamental aversion to maths and science in Australia? Given our reliance on technology, why is there not a greater desire to utilise it and to develop it? Is there a "science literacy" problem in Australia? Why have we become passive about science and technology, rather than embracing it at its fundamental levels?

In case you missed it, it was broadcast on ABC Radio National Big Ideas on Monday 17 June (click Forum 2013 to download a recording of the broadcast).

1210th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

"In an analogue world, envisioning the digital future: Paul Otlet, a
forgotten forefather of today's 'information society' " - Emeritus
Professor Boyd Rayward

Emeritus Professor Boyd Rayward gave a fascinating talk about someone, whom he styled as 'forgotten', but in reality had never been heard of by most members of the audience, the Belgian Paul Otlet (1868 – 1944). A lawyer by profession, an activist for peace in the very troubled times of Europe in the first half of the 20 c, Otlet had the revolutionary idea of collating and indexing all knowledge in a way that could be augmented, updated and proliferated world wide. As new technology came along (telegraph, telephone, radio, etc) he embraced each into his universal knowledge network.

In 1910, Otlet and Henri La Fontaine first envisioned a "city of knowledge", which Otlet originally named the "Palais Mondial" ("World Palace", later called the Mundaneum), that would serve as a central repository for the information, and "radiate knowledge to the rest of the world". The many world cities that were designed, were mostly never built, and Otlet's own offices were closed down by the Belgian Government in 1934.

His well-known (until recently) legacy, was the invention of the 3 x 5 inch standard index card, found in every library until the modern computer era. There were 15 million of them in the Mundaneum before it closed in 1934. There are just over 30.2 million pages in Wikipedia as of 21 May, 2013.

A museum was opened in 1988 in Mons, Belgium as a kind of recreation of the Mundaneum and repository of the papers of Otlet (and La Fontaine). Professor Rayward divides his time between Belgium, Illinois (where is professor emeritus) and Sydney, and continues to research into the life of this amazing and far sighted man of the world.

1209th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Inaugural Fellows Lecture - Professor Michael Archer AM

"An evolutionary history of Australia"

The Society was proud to have Professor Michael Archer AM present the inaugural Fellows Lecture on Wednesday, 3 April 2013. Professor Archer was one of the first Fellows appointed by the Society, recognising his outstanding work as a palaeontologist, particularly in relation to the Riversleigh fossil find in Queensland, one of the richest fossil deposits in the world.

Until about 50 years ago, only about 70 fossil mammals had been found in the whole Australian continent, compared to about 50,000 in North America. The geology of the Riversleigh area, in northern Queensland, is unusual. There are large expanses of very old (1.6 billion years) Precambrian rock and more recent Cambrian deposits (500 million years old) that contain rather unremarkable fossils of the era. But there are pockets of more recent geological deposits, 10-25 million years old, that have been found to contain extraordinarily well-preserved fossils. There are about 40 sq. km of these deposits. A wide range of unusual animals have been found: five kinds of thylacine, giant, toothed platypus, flesh-eating kangaroos and ancient birds. Some of the birds are the biggest ever discovered and would have weighed up to 400 kg. Also, huge fossilised snakes, importantly, a diverse range of ancient bats and a great variety of trees and plants have been discovered.

How did this extraordinary preservation take place? Professor Archer explained that there were two phenomena that together resulted in this remarkable deposit. Water that percolated up from subterranean deposits were saturated in calcium carbonate and this quickly precipitated around any dead animals that fell into the water. This was responsible for preserving skeletons intact and is easily removed using weak acid such as acetic acid that quickly dissolve the calcium carbonate, exposing a well-preserved fossilised skeleton. But in addition, another phenomenon called "bacterially-mediated phosphatisation", means phosphates from bat droppings have preserved soft tissue, resulting in remarkably complete fossils being found in many areas. In a process known as "tufagenic barrage", calcium carbonate deposits formed dams that allowed fossilisation to take place. These dams were ultimately breached but the fossils were preserved. At the time, Riversleigh area was covered with rainforest but this has gradually receded to coastal zones.

The Riversleigh deposits cover five phases from 25 million years ago to 1.5 million years ago and is the richest sequence in Australia. (There is only one other similar deposit in the world – this is in France.) The Riversleigh find has completely changed perceptions about Australia's past. It is now clear that there is a diversity in the fossil record suggesting an environment that was as rich at the time as Borneo and the Amazon regions are today. About 15 million years ago Australia started to dry out, yet it was not until about 3 million years ago that extensive grasslands formed.

Professor Archer pointed out that the fossil record gives us a very rich understanding of the way in which current species have evolved from which we can deduce how habitat change can be managed and to protect species that might be at risk of extinction as climate change takes place. We can also gain insight into which species are at threat by understanding the extent to which their populations have increased or declined over long periods of time.

1208th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

"The evolution of galaxies" - Dr Ray Norris

Ray Norris, a senior astrophysicist with the CSIRO spoke at the 1208th OGM of the Society on one of the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) projects, Project EMU – an acronym for evolutionary map of the universe.

The ASKAP project is the first phase of the $2 billion Square Kilometre Array project shared between South Africa and Australia. The cost of this phase is $170 million and is being built in Western Australia.

It consists of 36 12-m radio antennas that have extraordinarily high resolution, using devices called phased-array feeds. Project EMU is one of two high-priority projects that are currently underway. Emu will conduct a deep survey of a patch of dark sky, making deep images at several different wavelengths to create a census of all galaxies within the patch being examined.

The aim is to identify the different evolutionary tracks of galaxies and, hopefully, to identify some important but rare transitional stages. The survey is expected to be able to look back in time to the formation of the first stars around 400 million years after the big bang that took place 13.7 billion years ago. Radio telescopes are ideal for this type of survey because they are unaffected by dust. When combined with infrared and optical data, they can give a very powerful image of their field of view.

Dr Norris outlined many of the phenomena that EMU is investigating. The science goals of the EMU project are to better understand the evolution of massive black holes, to explore the large-scale structure and cosmological parameters of the universe (for example, test theories about dark energy) and to explore diffuse low-surface-brightness radio objects. The project will also add substantially to a large database of surveys that can be mined as computing capacity continues to increase.

1207th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday 6 February 2013

"The evolution of galaxies" - Dr Ray Norris

The 2012 Scholarship winners presented at the first meeting of 2013 held at the Union University and Schools Club on Wednesday 6 February.

Helen Smith (left) is completing her PhD at Sydney University as part of a Sydney-based conservation programme to reintroduce the native bush rat into the Sydney Harbour National Park. If successful, this promises to be an effective way of displacing introduced rats that have had significant impact on local wildlife. Initial indications suggest that, once established, native rats successfully compete with introduced rats.

Anwen Krause-Heuer (right) is in the midst of a PhD at the University of Western Sydney and is working on the development of new cancer drugs based on cis-platin. The aim of the workers to develop platinum-based anti-cancer complexes that have lower toxicity than established treatments.

Jendi Kepple is undertaking a PhD at the University of NSW and is investigating the design of various alloys and composite materials to improve the design of launch vehicles used in the European space programme. (Unfortunately Jenndi was not able to attend evening as she was at a conference overseas. She was well-represented by one of her colleagues.)

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