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Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

1233rd OGM and public lecture

“Science in literature”

JLey  Dr James Ley

  Editor, Sydney Review of Books

Wednesday 1 July 2015
Union University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

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 http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/

1232nd OGM and public lecture

“The science of spontaneity: Fred Astaire as consummate craftsman”

kriley  Dr Kathleen Riley

Wednesday 3 June 2015
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 numerous 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 (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.

Annual black-tie dinner 2015

bashir  Guest of Honour Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO

  Vice Regal Patron of the Society
  and Governor of NSW

Tuesday 5 May 2015
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Dame Marie Bashir was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Royal Society, was presented with the 2014 Royal Society of NSW Medal, and gave the Distinguished Fellow's Address.  She reflected on the origins of the Society and on the contributions of Lachlan Macquarie, 5th Governor of NSW.

Other awards presented at the dinner were:

History & Philosophy of
Science Medal
Dr. Ann Moyal AM
Clarke Medal (Botany) Professor Robert F. Park
James Cook Medal Scientia Professor Martin Green AM
Esgeworth David Medal Associate Professor Richard Payne
Clarke Medal (Geology)
for 2013
Distinguished Professor Bill Griffin

Awardees at the Annual Dinner 2015

L to R: Prof. Bill Griffin, A/Prof. Richard Payne, Prof. Robert Park, Dr. Ann Moyal, Dame Marie Bashir, Ms. Judith Wheeldon (Vice President), Prof. Brynn Hibbert (Vice President), Donald Hector (President)

1231st OGM, AGM and public lecture

“Is the brain the right size?”

Paxinos and Hibbert  Scientia Professor George Paxinos AO

  School of Medical Sciences, UNSW

Wednesday 1 April 2015
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Scientia Professor George Paxinos described the outstanding body of research that he has conducted over many years on mapping the structure of the brain. His work is some of the most cited research in the scientific literature. Virtually every map of the human brain found in hospital operating theatres, doctors’ surgeries and medical practices is based on his work.

Descartes famously made the distinction between mind and brain but, Professor Paxinos argues, there is no ghost in the brain. The mind is a function of brain activity, nothing more. One of the primary differences between the brain and other organs is the extraordinary number of neurones that it contains. The human brain has many more neurones than the size of its body suggests.

Professor Paxinos described the approach taken to understand the structure of the brain. Mostly this revolves around looking at other animals, such as rats and research monkeys to determine the difference in brain structure and, from the differences conclude the function of various aspects of the human brain. One of the main techniques in studying brain tissue is histology. In this approach, tissue is cut it into very fine slices that are then stained to be observed under a microscope. About 40 years ago, a major breakthrough was made when it was realised that staining brain tissue using a variety of stains gave a much richer understanding of neurones structure – the stains were able to differentiate between different types of tissue.

More recently, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been used to map brains, in particular mouse brains. This enables construction of three-dimensional images with different stains revealing different details. These can be then synthesised into many different types of image. Combining the histological approach with MRI has enabled highly detailed maps of brain structure to be synthesised using data from many sources.

Professor Paxinos’s group is now looking at the “ontology” of the brain (borrowing the term from philosophy) to better understand the way in which the structure of the brain relates to human thought. Of particular interest is the nature of thought processes, such as belief. All human belief derives from brain function.

So is the brain right size? If it was smaller it would not have allowed us to have achieved the quite extraordinary advances in human thought over the last several thousand years. We would not have been able to go to the moon or puzzle over challenges of quantum mechanics. But the brain is by no means infallible and indeed it may be the wrong size to enable us to come to terms with some of the highly complex issues such as climate change that challenge the very future of humanity.  

1230th OGM and public lecture

“Super-resolution microscopy: understanding how T-cells make decisions”

Kraus  Scientia Professor Katharina Gaus

  ARC Centre of Excellence in Advanced
  Molecular Imaging
  Program in Membrane Interface Biology, UNSW​

Wednesday 4 March 2015
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Professor Gaus described her ground-breaking work on understanding the structure of T-cells, one of the major components of the immune system. Professor Gaus is a cell biologist who uses super-resolution microscopy to explore the structure of cell membranes. Hopefully, this will lead to improved treatments for infectious, cancer and autoimmune diseases.

The adaptive immune system is the body’s first line of defence against infection. It is acquired over the life of the organism, developing a ‘memory’ for antigens (antigens are the invading agent). This highly sophisticated system is antigen-specific and must be able to distinguish between foreign antigens and substances made by the host. It is mediated by T-lymphocytes – a type of white blood cell that plays a central role in cell-mediated immunity. T-lymphocytes are characterised by the presence of a T-cell receptor (TCR) on the cell-surface. Antigens bind to T-cells through major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a set of cell-surface molecules that controls a major part of the immune system in all vertebrates. Humans can make up to 25,000,000 different TCRs, representing an enormous variety of substances against which the body can mount an immune response.

The role of T-cells is to hunt for antigens. Over the last 50 years or so, the way in which T-cells identify antigens has been characterised: TCRs can only recognise peptides on MHC, T-cells do not recognise self-peptides on self-MHC, and T-cells that react to self-peptides on self-MHC result in autoimmunity. T-cells are responsible for life-and-death decisions – they have to distinguish between self-peptides and foreign peptides. This is like looking for a needle in a haystack; there are many more self-peptides and foreign peptides. Gaining a better understanding of the structure and function of T-cells is important in developing treatments for autoimmune diseases and cancer. For example, it is known that T-cells play a role in the body's resistance to various types of cancer. However, one of the problems in cancer immunotherapy is to determine why some cancers escape T-cells and whether or not they can be retrained.

Professor Gaus’s work is focused on using microscopy to identify the structure of T-cell membranes. There are two major problems that need to be solved to investigate this. T-cells are very mobile – they move rapidly through the blood and it is difficult to capture images of them. Fortunately, once they bind to an antigen, they become almost stationary. The second problem is one of resolution. The molecules being investigated are 10–20 nm in size. The diffraction limit for a visible light microscope is about 250 nm which means that they cannot resolve these molecules. This requires super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, form of light microscopy that allows capture of images that at a much higher resolution than the diffraction limit. Super-resolution fluorescence microscopy enables investigation down to the to the size range of the T-cell molecules of interest.

By acquiring very large samples of data (20,000 frames), x-y coordinates can be determined and statistical methods can be used to analyse structure of specific molecules. Professor Gaus’s research has identified a number of interesting observations about the function of T-cells. It seems that only some T-cells trigger on exposure to an antigen and receptors seem to be triggered in dense clusters. TCR clustering appears to a key element in antigen recognition and some antigens appear to induce TCR clustering. This raises interesting questions such as, can we use nanoparticles to induce clustering?

Recently, Professor Gaus has been investigating ways in which the z-axis can be explored so that molecules can be investigated in all three spatial dimensions as her earlier work suggests that the dynamics of the molecules (such as oscillating like a yo-yo) may be important in their function.

Four Societies lecture 2015

"Latest developments in small modular reactors"

adi patterson ANSTODr Adrian (Adi) Paterson

Chief Executive Officer,
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

Held in conjunction with the Nuclear Engineering Panel of the Sydney Branch of Engineers Australia, the Australian Nuclear Association and the Australian Institute of Energy

Date: Monday 16 February 2015

The largest source of energy today is fossil fuel which we know has significant CO2issues. The second largest source is nuclear, using uranium. Dr Paterson began his talk by showing that the country generating the most energy per capita is France with its successful harnessing of nuclear technology, but interestingly Brazil is also successful with its use of ethanol from sugar cane. Australia was shown to be in the worst sector with almost the highest cost per capita of electric power generation, more than twice as expensive as France and similar to the high cost in Denmark which relies heavily on wind energy.

Dr Paterson is a world authority on Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). In his talk he stated that this new type of nuclear reactor is given too little prominence against the backdrop of the very large power reactors, such as China's new 1750 MWe power plant in Taishan, which have captured our attention until now.

Dr Paterson touched on Australia's recent shifts politically in which the nuclear component of an optimal energy mix is growing in acceptance, as seen from the recent announcement of a Royal Commission in South Australia, in view also of its rich resources of uranium. The lecture showed how SMRs are ready to fill the vacuum in countries like Australia.

Once again, the Four Societies Lecture was an outstanding success with a full house attending. The Society thanks the Australian Institute of Energy for organizing this year's event and Clayton Utz for supporting it.

1229th Ordinary General Meeting - Scholarship presentations

Royal Society of NSW scholarship winners 2015

Wednesday 4 February 2015
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Melanie Laird
School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney

Melanie is a University Medallist in her second year of a PhD under the supervision of Professor Michael Thompson, studying reproduction in marsupials.

Ruth Wells
School of Psychology, University of Sydney

Ruth is enrolled in a doctorate of clinical psychology and Master of Science programme. With an exceptional display of initiative, Ruth built relationships with psychologists, psychiatrists, academics and health workers in Jordan over the internet; crowd-funded her travel costs, and then completed the research project in Jordan where she explored barriers to mental health care for Syrian refugees living in Jordan.

Stephen Parker
School of Chemistry, University of NSW

Stephen Parker is in his final year of a PhD in the Nanomaterials group in the School of Chemistry at UNSW where he is making surfaces that can capture cells from a blood sample and then release a single targeted cell that has a particular characteristic.

 Scholarship Winners 2015

L to R: Brynn Hibbert, Stephen Parker, Melanie Laird, Ruth Wells, Donald Hector

1228th Ordinary General Meeting

2014 Jak Kelly Award presentation, followed by the Society’s Christmas Party

Wednesday 3 December 2014

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

Linh TranThe 2014 Royal Society of NSW Jak Kelly Award was presented to Ms Linh Tran of the School of Physics at University of Wollongong (here seen at the AIP Awards Day on 18 November), for her work on development of 3D semiconductor microdosimetric sensors for RBE determination in 12C heavy ion therapy.

The Jak Kelly Award was created in honour of Professor Jak Kelly (1928 - 2012), who was Head of Physics at University of NSW from 1985 to 1989, was made an Honorary Professor of University of Sydney in 2004, and was President of the Royal Society of NSW in 2005 and 2006.  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 the most recent Australian Institute of Physics, NSW branch postgraduate awards.

Liversidge medal winner lecture 2014

"Recent studies on the total synthesis of natural products and related systems"

Liversidge2015 Professor Martin Banwell

 Research School of Chemistry
 Institute of Advanced Studies
 Australian National University
 Canberra

Thursday 20 November 2014

Lecture Theatre 4, School of Chemistry, University of Sydney

Professor Banwell is an organic chemist and is one of Australia's most accomplished researchers into the synthesis of complex organic compounds. In this year's Liversidge Research Lecture, he described work that has been done in his group over a number of years to synthesise materials that have wide-ranging applications, especially as pharmaceuticals. The starting point for his work is a family organic chemicals called arenes. These are substances based on a structure of six carbon atoms arranged in a ring, with each carbon atom having a hydrogen atom attached – this substance is known as benzene. Some of the hydrogen atoms can be replaced by other substituents, for example, instead of one of the hydrogen atoms, methyl, bromine, chlorine, trifluorocarbon, hydroxyl, carboxyl etc groups can be substituted. These can then be used as building blocks, using a variety of synthetic pathways, to make much more complex substances.

Until quite recently, many of these syntheses were done using a variety of chemical reactions that have been developed by organic chemists over the last 150 years. One of the problems that arises with this approach is that substances with the same chemical formula can have different shapes. For example, substances that have the same chemical formula but be mirror images of each another, in much the same way as the right-hand is the mirror image of the left-hand – these are called enantiomers. Often, one enantiomer will have little physiological effect in comparison to the other. In the last 15 years or so, genetically-modified organisms have been developed that allows synthesis of these substances that favours production of the biologically-active enantiomer.

Professor Banwell described his work to develop synthetic pathways, starting with the simple substances described above and reacting these with genetically modified e. coli to produce an arene with two adjacent hydroxyl groups, in addition to the other reactive site. This results in an intermediate that allows a great variety of subsequent synthetic pathways, allowing synthesis of a very large number of biologically active substances. Two examples of these are vitamin C and the influenza drug Tamiflu. Professor Banwell went on to describe a complex sequence of reactions that has enabled his group to synthesise a substance called Ribisin C, the substance that, at very low concentrations, appears to have a marked effect on the stimulating neurite growth in PC12 cells. (Neurites are projections that growth from neurons [nerve cells] as they develop and PC12 cells are particular type of rat neuron that is used in medical research.) It is hoped that this research work may lead to new treatments for neurological diseases and damage to the nervous system. Professor Banwell's group is also working on novel pathways for making codeine, an opioid that is currently derived from opium poppy production. A synthetic pathway could, potentially, lead to a much less expensive production process for opiates.

1227th Ordinary General Meeting

"A drop of optics"

Dr Steve Lee and Dr Tri Phan, joint winners of the 2014 ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology

Date: Wednesday 5 November 2014

The talk at the 1227th AGM was presented by Dr Steve Lee and Dr Tri Phan, joint winners of the 2014 ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology. They received the award for developing a very inexpensive polymer lens with extraordinarily high resolution that can be used on cameras like those found on mobile telephones.

In recent years, miniaturisation has revolutionised sensors: small image sensors means that the optical device can also be miniaturised and it is much easier to get good optical qualities in a small lens than a large one. The early miniaturised lenses were ground from small pieces of glass and were quite expensive to manufacture. However, with the development of polymers with good optical qualities, high-quality lenses can now be moulded rather than being ground. But if surface tension is allowed to create the lens surface rather than moulding, surface roughness (which is almost impossible to avoid with any moulding process) can be largely eliminated.

A familiar example is the optical quality of raindrops but if the liquid used to form the lens is of much greater viscosity than water, for example, viscoelastic polymers, gravity can be used to shape the surface of the lens to give specific optical properties. The technique that Dr Lee and Dr Phan developed was to use highly viscous polydimethylsiloxane in as the polymer (this is also referred to a silicone polymer) and to suspend droplets from a small orifice so that gravity forms droplets with curvature that has the right optical characteristics. The silicone polymer can be cross-linked and thus stabilise it shape simply by putting it into an oven to cure. Different lens geometries can be obtained by applying several layers of polymer with intermediate curing steps.

One application that Dr Lee and Dr Phan have developed is to use these lenses to clip onto the cameras on mobile telephones. Standard lens on mobile telephone (these are moulded) has a roughness of 200 nm whereas the elastomer lens is around 10 nm. Consequently, much finer detail can be resolved using the polymer lens. The opportunity is to integrate lenses such as these into smart phones and use these for diagnostic and remote sensing applications.

The technology was just released at the Google "The Mobile First World" conference in Taiwan.

1226th Ordinary General Meeting

"Australia's most spectacular environmental rehabilitation project: Phillip Island, Pacific Ocean"

Dr Peter Coyn

Date: Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Perched atop a submerged seamount, in turn atop a submarine ridge, Phillip Island and its close neighbour Norfolk Island are tiny specks, the only land in a vast expanse (2.5 million square kilometres) of the southwest Pacific Ocean. Both islands were created by volcanic activity between 2.8 and 2.2 million years ago. The plateau top of the seamount, 100 x 35 kilometres, is between 30 and 75 metres below present sea level. Sequential ice ages during the last 2 million years exposed the entire plateau, an area about 100 times the size of the present islands. Such an area could have accommodated about four times as many species as the present islands. During the last ice age the entire plateau was exposed for 24,000 years until 13,000 years ago. Sea level 25 metres higher, reached 10,000 years ago, still exposed an island about 35 km long, large enough to accommodate more than double the species count of the present islands and joining these islands with dry land. An island at least this large was exposed for 60,000 years during the last ice age, before the sea reached its present level just 6,000 years ago. The generally much larger size of the islands and the ecological stress caused by their declining area, and the consequent loss of three-quarters of their species, between 13,000 and 6,000 years ago, could help explain the great biological value of the islands and Phillip Island specifically.

Phillip Island was densely vegetated when pigs were released there in 1793, followed by goats and rabbits by 1830. The feral grazers quickly destroyed the vegetation and by 1860 the island was mostly bare. Photographs dated 1906, when only rabbits remained, show landscapes almost identical to those of 1980 — almost no vegetation was present. In 1979 Dr Coyne began a three-year experimental program to investigate the effects of the rabbits and potential for vegetation re-establishment. The work was physically difficult and often hazardous. The first year's results were enough to persuade decision-makers the rabbits should be eradicated. That work began in 1981 and by 1986 the rabbits had been destroyed by a combination of an artificial strain of myxoma virus, poisoning, shooting, trapping and fumigating. The eradication program required swimming to habitat accessible only from the sea, archery to distribute the myxoma vector (rabbit fleas) to other inaccessible areas of habitat, and a lot of rock climbing on cliffs to 250 metres high. Since then the island has been transformed by new vegetation, most arising spontaneously. Some of the world's rarest plant species have been discovered, rediscovered or have increased in numbers. One has only a single genotype, two have fewer than fifty individuals and another has fewer than 250 individuals. A genus and species endemic to Phillip Island sadly was not rediscovered and at least two Phillip Island plants are extinct. Fauna have also benefitted from the revegetation, and being free of rats and cats the island has potential as a refuge for threatened fauna endemic to Norfolk Island.

1225th Ordinary General Meeting

"The fourth dimension and beyond - the paradox of working in unimaginable worlds"

Emeritus Scientia Professor Ian Sloan AO FRSN

Date: Wednesday 3 September 2014

Professor Ian Sloan is not content to work in an environment of four dimensions – he is quite at home in space with many more dimensions than most of us are accustomed to. Many mathematical problems can be considered as problems and multidimensional space – the question is how do we imagine these environments? The dimensions of a space can be considered to be the number of directions that you can go from any single point within it. For example, in our four-dimensional world, from any point we can go in three spatial directions, plus time. If we are in a six-dimensional environment, we can go in six directions from any given point and mathematically we don't need more than six variables to describe this environment. But why would we be interested in multidimensional spaces?

Many problems are best analysed in multi-dimensions. For example, the shop may have 250 stock items. This can be thought of as a single point in 250-dimensional space. Each stock item has a price, so there are another 250 dimensions to consider. One area where this approach has a major application is evaluating certain types of financial transactions such as derivatives.

An investor may want to analyse a potential investment in Woolworth shares, for example. The payoff might be thought of as the closing share-price over a period of 250 trading days in, say, $10 increments. Using multidimensional mathematics, the investor can calculate the expected payoff at a certain trading day on the basis of what the closing share price might be. Such calculations soon become extremely complex, in fact, too complex to be evaluated (this is known as "the curse of dimensionality" a term coined by Richard Bellman, a noted researcher in this field). And what if the payoff can take any value, rather than being in $10 increments – does this make it even harder? Well, fortunately it does not.

Using a statistical approach known as the Monte Carlo method, these highly complex functions can be evaluated quite accurately. The Monte Carlo method may be thought of as a technique whereby one randomly throws points at a target and evaluates whether the points fall on the target or outside it. If the target can be mathematically described, the functions can be evaluated with considerable accuracy after no more than a few thousand random "throws". This enables highly-complex derivative functions to be evaluated quite accurately. The problem then lies in the assumptions underlying the mathematical model used to define the "target". Flaws in the underlying assumptions have resulted in many a lost fortune!

Despite the accuracy of the Monte Carlo method, with highly complex functions the number of random throws can become very large and the question arises, can we do better than generating the throws randomly? For some problems, using a pattern, for example, a lattice has been shown to converge much more quickly.

Multidimensional mathematics is one of our most powerful tools in solving problems from financial derivatives, to metadata analysis, to cosmology. Professor Sloan provided a particularly clear insight into a highly complex and very powerful mathematical technique.

1224th Ordinary General Meeting

"Saving Australia through science education"

Emeritus Scientia Professor Eugenie Lumbers AM DistFRSN

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The world is experiencing an exponential rate of technological progress. Change was relatively gradual from the time and the domestication of the horse until the 17th century. Indeed, in the early stages the Industrial Revolution, industry was still heavily dependent on horse-drawn transport. In 1900, just 14 years after the invention of the motor car, there were still 300,000 horses in service in London. That same year, there were 0.11 cars per thousand people in the US; in 2009 there are 828. This enormous, rapidly accelerating technological change took place as a consequence of science and its application in development of technology. The question is why was such enthusiasm for science in the 1940s and 1950s but this has largely disappeared today in many countries, not the least of which is Australia. This poses a major challenge for Australia – how will we keep up with technological progress when few people are interested in seeking a science or technological education? Despite the apparent interest in science, in a multitude of TV programmes for example, this is actually positioning science as entertainment, not as true science.

Despite this rapid shift away from science, Australia was still doing well by international standards until the late 20th century. In 2000, Australia ranked number three in the world (after South Korea and Japan) in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, a test that measures problem-solving capability in 15-year-olds. In the latest test, in 2012, Australia ranks number 8 (after Singapore, South Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taipei and Canada). It is not surprising that Australia's ranking is slipping when only 51% take a science subject in year 12 and less than 20% studied chemistry or physics. (Interestingly, biology is somewhat higher at 25% because it is seen as being "less academic".) What will the future look hold when the technologically-educated people of today are gone? It is extraordinary that 76% of Australians do not see science directly relevant to themselves but important to Australia's future.

The Academy of sciences tried to address this through its "Primary Connections" programme and inquiry brace programme to help teachers develop their teaching programmes and to provide curriculum resources. Similarly, the Academy's "Science by Doing" programme to secondary schools is aimed at stimulating the all-important interest and enjoyment in science for children in early secondary school so that they go on to choose a career in science.

1223rd Ordinary General Meeting

"What causes MS? The impact of the genetic revolution"

Professor Graeme Stewart AM

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Professor Graeme Stewart AM, director of clinical immunology at Westmead Hospital, has researched the genetic influences on disease, in particular on multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is the commonest chronic neurological disorder of young at all. It usually starts with a relapsing/remitting phase (symptoms occur and then go into remission for extended periods), commonly with onset at about the age of 30. The disease can be relatively benign with periods of disability, it can present as a relapsing/remitting disease with gradual increase in disability, or in about 10-20% of patients it can present as being "primary progressive", where disability progressively increases over time. MS is caused by the body's immune system malfunctioning – macrophages devour the myelin sheath around nerve cells, exposing the nerve axon and thereby disrupting the flow of information along the nerve cell. The body is able to repair the damage by re-myelinating the nerve cells after this initial attack however if the myelin is attacked the second time in the same place, the body is unable to repair the sheath and relapse occurs. Hence the symptoms of the disease progress.

The important question is: what causes this? MS is a disease which is clearly influenced by genes and environment. Studies of the disease in identical twins show 30% concordance, whereas in fraternal twins there is 4% concordance. The background incidence rate of MS is 0.4% of the population. This suggests that genetic influences are very significant but environmental factors are also a consideration. The interesting environmental effect is that the incidence of MS is quite highly correlated to latitude – for example, in Australia there is a 4 to 7 times hazard ratio between North Queensland and Tasmania – in the southern hemisphere, the further south you live, the more likely you are to contract MS. The most likely reason for this is the reduced exposure to UV-B light the further you are from the equator and vitamin D deficiency. Other environmental factors include smoking and exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus that causes glandular fever (almost all MS patients have been affected with Epstein-Barr virus). The fact that Epstein-Barr virus is implicated in virtually all MS cases may present an opportunity for treatment if the effect of this virus on DNA is understood.

Since the early 1970s, there has been a search for the genes implicated in MS. The first was found in 1972 but it was not until 2007 that the second gene was identified. Since then, as a consequence of the human genome project and widespread sequencing technology, together with the recent advances in computer power and statistical algorithms to handle large amounts of data, there have been over 100 genes identified. Pursuing genetic associations is expected to give insight into the pathogenesis, in particular the interaction between genes and environment. It is hoped that this will lead to interventions to prevent the disease from progressing. In addition, identifying genetic biomarkers may provide major opportunities for new treatments, including personalised treatments based on the individuals genetic profile.

There has been substantial progress in treatments for MS, including trials of drugs to stop T cells crossing the blood-brain barrier, drugs that capture lymphocytes and hold them in the lymph nodes and early indications that drugs targeting specific proteins identified through genetic analysis might be useful. In addition, trials are underway to see whether large doses of vitamin D might have some impact and whether increased exposure to ultraviolet light might also offer some improvement.

1222nd Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

"What lessons have we learnt from the Global Financial Crisis?"

Professor Robert Marks

In 2008, the world suffered "the equivalent of cardiac arrest", according to the Financial Times. It became virtually impossible for any institution to finance itself, (that is, borrow in the markets) longer than overnight. With the collapse of Lehman Bros, interbank credit markets froze and counterparty risk was considered to be too great for prospective lenders to take on the transactions. The London interbank overnight lending rate, typically in the range of 0.2% to 0.8% spiked to over 3%. This situation raises two questions: what caused this global financial crisis (GFC)? and how can we attempt to avoid similar crises in the future? The origins of the crisis go back more than 30 years.

Starting in 1977, there were substantial changes made to US investment legislation. Early in this period, the aim was to make finance more readily available to low-income borrowers, to progressively eliminate using the controls on mortgage rates and to remove discrimination in the US housing market. In 1999 and 2000, there was substantial deregulation, with substantial changes to long-standing legislation, in particular the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act of 1933 that had imposed restrictions banks during the Great Depression. There were also reforms to the Federal housing finance regulatory agencies, loosening their lending requirements.

This period of financial deregulation encouraged consolidation and demutualisation of many financial institutions that had been mutually or privately owned, with these being floated as public companies. Whereas previously their lending practices had been conservative as they had been risking their own money, now the money at risk belonged to other people! There was also great creativity in developing new financial products and instruments: Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS), structured investment vehicles, Credit Default Swaps (CDS) and Collateral Mortgage Obligations (CMO).

In the early 2000s, the September 11 attacks, coming not long after the bursting of the "tech bubble", led to a prolonged period of low interest rates. US fiscal policy was heavily in deficit leading to massive issuance of US bonds that were largely bought by China and other Asian countries. At the same time there was further financial deregulation, relaxing capital requirements that encouraged higher gearing financial institutions.

Unsurprisingly, firms responded to the incentives put before them. The market for the new financial instruments boomed and rating agencies responded by changing the way in which they charge for their services – they began charging the firms whose products they were rating, rather than the potential buyers of the product. In the US, the financial sector grew from 3.5% of GDP in 1960 to nearly 8% of GDP in 2008.

Drawing these strands together, there were four causes of the GFC: the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act; the decision by Congress not to regulate derivatives; the relaxation of regulations that allowed banks to expand their gearing; and the change by the ratings agencies to charge the issuer rather than the buyer of rated products.

How likely is this type of situation to occur again in the near future?

Unfortunately, a number of European countries may be facing similar challenges unless they take steps to avoid the problems that the US experienced. Fortunately, Australia avoided the worst of the GFC, well-served by the "four pillars" banking policy. However, there needs to be recognition that information is asymmetric and that the issue is really not one of risk but rather of uncertainty, where there are no simple answers. As George Santayana observed in 1905, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

Annual awards evening and dinner 2014

On Wednesday 7 May, the annual awards evening and annual dinner was held at the Union University and Schools Club in Sydney. The dinner was extremely well attended and the address by Professor Barry Jones AC FAA FACE FAHA FASSA FTSE DistFRSN on the attack on the scientific method stimulated a lot of discussion. During the evening, the Society's 2013 awards were presented and the inaugural group of eleven Fellows were presented with their certificates.

Back row: Benjamin Eggleton, Jerome Vanclay, Richard Banati, Ian Dawes, John Gascoigne. Front row: Aibing Yu, Ian Sloan, Judith Wheeldon, Donald Hector (President), Heinrich Hora, Merlin Crossley, Trevor Hambley

The President, Dr Donald Hector, presented the Society's 2013 awards. The Edgeworth David Medal was presented to Assoc Prof David Wilson, for his outstanding work on modelling HIV/AIDS and using this information to develop treatment and prevention strategies. Prof Michelle Simmons DistFRSN was awarded the Walter Burfitt Medal and Prize and Professor Brien Holden was awarded the James Cook Medal for his work in treating myopia (a leading cause of preventable blindness), particularly in developing world countries. The Clarke Medal could not be presented to distinguished geologist William Griffin, as he was overseas and unable to attend.

Left to right: Assoc Prof David Wilson, President Dr Donald Hector, Prof Brien Holden and Prof Michelle Simmons DistFRSN.

Distinguished Fellow's Lecture 2014

The Society was proud to have Professor Barry Jones AC DistFRSN present the second annual Distinguished Fellow's Lecture at the Society's annual dinner on Wednesday 7 May 2014. Professor Jones is the only person to be a Fellow of all four of Australia's learned Academies.

Prof Barry Jones AC DistFRSN delivers the second Royal Society of NSW Distinguished Fellow's Lecture.

1220th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

"The Jameson cell"

Laureate Professor Graeme Jameson AO

At the 1220th ordinary general meeting of the Society, Laureate Professor Graeme Jameson described the development of the Jameson cell, one of the most important technological contributions to the Australian economy in the last 50 years.

The Jameson cell is a flotation cell used to concentrate the valuable components on ore in minerals processing. In a typical mining operation, the first two stages of extracting minerals are the mine itself from which the ore is recovered and the concentrator, where the valuable mineral is extracted from the rest. Generally, the valuable components are no more than 2% of the ore recovered, so there is a massive challenge in isolating this from spoil for further processing. An important technology developed to achieve this concentration step was the flotation cell, a process first developed early in the 20th century.

In a flotation technology, the ore is ground up into very fine particles and dispersed with water and surfactants in a large mixing vessel that can be kept agitated and into the bottom of which compressed air can be introduced. Reagents are added to make hydrophobic the valuable mineral particles exposed during the crushing. Air is bubbled through the suspension and the hydrophobic mineral particles attach to the bubbles, float to the surface as a froth and then are skimmed off for further processing and enrichment. Because large volumes of ore have to be treated to recover a relatively small proportion of valuable product, this is a very expensive step in recovering minerals: first, the ore has to be ground to very fine particle sizes (typically around 150 micrometres) – this takes a lot of energy; and second, the volume that has to be treated in preparing the slurry is large, so processing equipment is big and expensive. Any technology that reduces either the cost of grinding or the size of the processing equipment can have a major impact on the cost of production. The Jameson cell revolutionised the floatation process by reducing the size of the equipment needed to efficiently float off the minerals.

Over a period of several years, Professor Jamieson identified the optimum parameters for particle size and the corresponding optimum size for the air bubbles used to float the treated particles. Generally, particle size needs to be less than 150 micrometres, or, even better, less than 100 micrometres. The smaller the particle, the more likely it is to consist of the pure mineral. But the real technological breakthrough was identifying that the optimum bubble size is about 300 micrometres. Until then, conventional cells operated using bubbles about three times that size at about 1 mm diameter. Having identified the optimum bubble size, the challenge was then to design equipment that produced the right amount of sheer to generate bubbles of 300 micrometres diameter . This turned out to be relatively simple, using high pressure jets of water to entrain the air.

Much of the commercialisation work was done at Mount Isa in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the cell has been deployed around the world and is used routinely to extract coal, copper, lead, zinc and potash and is used in other industries such as oil-sands extraction and industrial waste treatment. The over 300 cells have been installed and the cumulative value created by this invention is more than $25 billion.

Professor Jameson was named NSW Scientist of the Year in 2013.

1219th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

"Big data knowledge discovery: machine learning meets natural science"

Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte FRS, CEO, National ICT Australia

Hugh Durrant-Whyte is an internationally-recognised expert on the analysis of "big data" – the mass of information that is being generated around current information and communication technologies. Much of this is "metadata" – data that is captured as part of some activity (for example, when a digital photograph is taken also recording camera settings, capture date etc or the data kept by telecommunication companies every time a mobile phone call is made).

2.5×1018 bytes of data are generated every day – there is immense value in mining this data but this requires sophisticated analytical techniques. "Data analytics" is the term coined for technologies to analyse this data in areas as varied as the finance industry, the health industry, planning infrastructure, failure analysis in mechanical and electronic equipment and environmental analysis, to name but a few examples. Data analytics utilises Bayesian probability theory (named after Rev Thomas Bayes, an 18th century mathematician) to prepare quantitative models of existing data, gathering new data to address remaining problems and then updating model to incorporate both the old and new data.

Data analytics can be modelled using three types of mathematical functions: discrete functions that describe, for example, events or people's actions; finite probability functions, such as signals or locations and infinite probability functions such as spatial fields or temporal fields. As the masses of data available increase, the analysis can converge on knowledge. For example, payment patterns exhibited by individuals can be aggregated to behaviours of bank branch customers, giving an understanding of consumer behaviour. On the other side of the table, customers can utilise masses of data to take advantage of the best deals available or to customise internet-based content that they may wish to buy.

Where masses of historical data are available (for example, managing water assets) readily available historical parameters can be analysed for such applications as predicting equipment failures. In the case of water asset management, pipe age, soil type etc can be analysed to give a probabilistic analysis of when a water main might fail.

The mining industry has invested large amounts of money in developing systems to utilise masses of existing information to automate mine operation. This can take all available data around the surface of the mine, the subsurface, mapping, drilling, to create a completely integrated data model into a single, real-time representation of the mine.

The purpose of National ICT Australia (NICTA) is to utilise these data analytics approaches to produce leading-edge technologies and models for such varied applications as financial modelling, creating large-scale fully integrated data maps of regions (perhaps even as large as continental Australia). There is also a particular focus on data-driven discovery in the natural sciences in applications as varied as modelling ancient plate tectonics to predict mineralisation (on a timeframe of as much is 1.5 billion years) or ecological modelling, for example, predicting the growth of trees. Ultimately, these may be able to be integrated into one massive model of the Australian continent.

Four Societies Lecture 2014

Thursday, 27 February 2014

"Questions of power in NSW"

Professor Mary O'Kane, NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer

At the annual Four Societies Lecture, Professor Mary O'Kane considered the major questions that face NSW in the future of energy production and utilisation. Asking the right questions is key – it reduces the time taken to identify the best solutions.

Australia is the ninth largest energy producer in the world and one of only four net energy exporters. We have 38% of the world's uranium, 9% of the world's coal and 2% of the world's gas. In terms of consumption, agriculture takes 3%, mining 13.5%, manufacturing and construction 25%, transportation 38% and residential about 11%. The 2014 Commonwealth Energy White Paper is seeking to address a number of questions regarding Australia's energy future. These include security of energy sources, the role of government and regulatory implications, growth and investment, trade in international relations, productivity and efficiency and alternative and emerging energy sources and technologies.

A recent report by the Grattan Institute identified a number of important issues. Australia has a lot of gas and coal, yet has yet to fully consider the impact of having no clear climate change policy. There is also the question of how can the electrical system (particularly one based on large generation units interconnected by a grid) meet the challenge of occasional very high peak demand. The Grattan Institute also posed questions around the balance of market and regulation and the importance of getting this right and explored the implications of new technologies and whether these provide potential solutions.

Australia is not unique in facing these challenges. One approach being taken in the US has been to establish an energy agency using a model was originally conceived for advanced research projects for the defence industry. ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and was established to fund high risk/high reward research to identify new technologies for energy in the US. The research programmes in their portfolio relate to reconceiving the grid, the impact of micro grids, the impact of analysing big data, the gas revolution, new ways to get higher efficiencies, entirely new technologies, the best policy settings to encourage the adoption of new technologies and innovative models for research and development. Perhaps these sorts of approaches need to be utilised in NSW.

Questions that need to be addressed are what about nuclear energy? To what extent is geothermal energy applicable? How should we gain new efficiencies? How can we better optimise grid storage and geometry? What are the downsides of these various technologies? Are there opportunities to directly and export to our immediate neighbours (e.g. Indonesia)? How effective is Australia's energy R&D?

Professor O'Kane summarised the issues in three searching questions. First, how do we characterise a system that we want and the process to realise it? (What are the most important characteristics that our energy future must have, would be nice to have? What energy futures do we definitely not want?) Second, who should be responsible for demonstrating new technologies (responsible for progress, experiment, scale up, economic model and "energy equity")? And third, how can we have the best system possible? We must become expert at asking the questions and seeking solutions around the world and, importantly, developing solutions locally where appropriate in order to create a leadership position.

Royal Society Events

The Royal Society of NSW organizes events in Sydney and in its Branches throughout the year. 

In Sydney, these include Ordinary General Meetings (OGMs) held normally at 6.00 for 6.30 pm on the first Wednesday of the month (there is no meeting in January), in the Gallery Room at the State Library of NSW. At the OGMs, society business is conducted, new Fellows and Members are inducted, and reports from Council are given.  This is followed by a public lecture presented by an eminent expert and an optional dinner.  Drinks are served before the meeting.  There is a small charge to attend the meeting and lecture, 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 of  the year, held in February, has speakers drawn from the winners of the Royal Society Scholarships from the previous year, while the December OGM hears from the winner of the Jak Kelly award, before an informal Christmas party.  The April or May 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 — the Australian Academy of Science, with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia
  • The Dirac lecture — with UNSW Sydney and the Australian Institute of Physics
  • The Liversidge Medal lecture — with the Royal Australian Chemical Institute
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