Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Science Week 2015 lunchtime talk 2

“Aboriginal astronomy and the clash of cultures”

Ragbir  Dr Ragbir Bhathal

Tuesday 18 August 2015
University of Sydney Business School CBD campus, Level 17, 133 Castlereagh St., Sydney

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

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


Science Week 2015 lunchtime talk 1

“Failing to learn: using artificial worlds to teach science in a new way”

Mjacobson  Professor Michael Jacobson

  Professor of Education
  University of Sydney

Friday 14 August 2015
University of Sydney Business School CBD campus
Level 17, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney

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

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

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


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.


1238th OGM and Christmas party

“From quantum devices to quantum machines”

colless  James Colless
  ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered
  Quantum Systems (EQuS),
  University of Sydney

  Jak Kelly Award winner for 2015

Wednesday 2 December 2015
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

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.

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

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

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

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


1237th OGM and public lecture

“Big history”

dchristian  Professor David Christian

  Director, The Big History Institute
  Macquarie University

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Annual Meeting of the Four Societies 2016

Four Societies 2016  “Australian energy policy”

  Professor Robert Clark AO FAA DistFRSN
  Chair of Energy Strategy and Policy, UNSW

Thursday 25 February 2016

Hamilton and Parkes Rooms, Level 47, MLC Centre, King and Castlereagh Streets, Sydney

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

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

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

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

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

The Four Societies Lecture is presented annually by the Royal Society of NSW, the Australian Institute of Energy, the Nuclear Panel of Engineers Australia (Sydney Division) and the Australian Nuclear Association.


1240th OGM and public lecture

Note: the OGM number 1239 is not used for administrative reasons.

Royal Society of New South Wales Scholarship presentations

OGM 1240 v stadnik a dudek c foster

The scholarship winners with the President of the Royal Society of NSW, Dr Donald Hector
L-R: Yevgeny Stadnik, Adam Dudek, Don Hector, Charles Forster

Wednesday 3 February 2016
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

The Royal Society of New South Wales has a long tradition of encouraging and supporting scientific research and leading intellectual life in the State. The Council of the Royal Society has established the Royal Society of New South Wales Scholarships in order to acknowledge outstanding achievements by young researchers. The talks this evening were by the 2015 scholarship winners

“Problems and prime numbers” ─ Adrian Dudek

Adrian Dudek works in the field of number theory with Dr Trudgian at the Australian National University. Since ancient times, the prime numbers have attracted the attention of curious mathematicians (and other characters) for one reason: it's extraordinarily difficult to answer questions regarding the primes. For instance, if you were to write down a list of the first 100 prime numbers, you would not be able to find an intelligible pattern. That being said, some recent spectacular advances in number theory mean that the prime numbers are becoming less elusive and more understandable. In his talk, Adrian recounted some of the history of this ancient branch of mathematics, whilst describing some of his own results in this area.  

“How old are flowers? A phylogenomic investigation of the angiosperm evolutionary timescale” ─ Charles Forster

Charles Forster is a botanist working with the RSNSW Edgeworth David medallist Simon Ho at The University of Sydney. Resolving the evolutionary timescale of flowering plants (Angiospermae) is crucial for understanding how these plants came to dominate habitats globally, and how this shaped the evolution of other organisms. In the absence of fossil data for many angiosperm lineages, molecular dating provides an important tool for estimating the evolutionary timescale of this group. Differences in sampling of taxa, genes, and fossil calibrations, along with the use of different molecular dating methods, have led to widely disparate date estimates. By analysing chloroplast genomes from 195 taxa with 37 fossil calibrations, and testing the sensitivity of our results to a range of priors and evolutionary models, Charles has provided the most comprehensive combination of analyses of the angiosperm evolutionary timescale so far. The results he has obtained reflect the increasingly common finding that molecular dating estimates predate the oldest fossils by a non-trivial amount of time, up to 70 million years when considering mean estimates.

“Manifestations of Dark Matter and variation of fundamental constants in atoms and astrophysical phenomena” ─ Yevgeny Stadnik

Yevgeny Stadnik works with Professor Flambaum FRSN at UNSW. Astrophysical observations indicate that 85% of the matter content in the Universe is due to dark matter, the identity and properties of which remain a mystery. Recently, our group at UNSW has proposed new, high-precision methods to directly detect dark matter using tabletop experiments in the laboratory. In his talk, Yevgeny presented an overview of some of the group's recently proposed methods and breakthrough results that have been obtained using these methods, as well as ongoing efforts with a number of experimental groups and collaborations from around the world to search for dark matter at an unprecedented level of accuracy using our proposed new methods.



1242nd OGM, AGM and public lecture

 don hector
  “Royal Society of NSW – relevance in the 21st

   Dr Donald Hector FRSN

Wednesday 6 April 2016
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



1241st OGM and public lecture

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

Len Fisher OGM 1241 small  Dr Len Fisher
  Visiting Fellow in Physics,
  University of Bristol

Wednesday 2 March 2016
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

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

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


1244th OGM and public lecture

“Royal” not “Philosophical” - W.B. Clarke's Inaugural Address to the Royal Society of NSW

Bob Young OGM 1243   Dr Bob Young

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

Wednesday 6 July 2016
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

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

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

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


1243rd OGM and public lecture

 Peter Hiscock 1“The curious case of the scientist in cinema: how
  Indiana Jones turns out to be the bad guy!”

  Professor Peter Hiscock
  Tom Austen Brown Professor of Australian
  Archaeology, University of Sydney

Wednesday 1 June 2016
Union, University & Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Uplifting music and the seemingly inevitable triumph of an archaeologist’s matinee character has led the public to think of archaeologists as heroes of the silver screen. Indiana Jones was voted the second most popular hero in cinema, and every passing year sees a series of (often B-grade) movies in which the archaeologist is the protagonist saving the day. Underneath those exciting images there is a grim truth: archaeologists are actually the bad guys of modern cinema! They are often depicted as morally ambiguous individuals seeking personal gain; they are rogue adventurers – like cowboys in a rangewar or pirates competing over spoils.

But most importantly archaeologists are portrayed as transgressive individuals who cross the boundary of socially appropriate behaviour to interfere with dangerous and still potent realms. In that way archaeologists inherit the mantle of the mad science. This inheritance is not merely a resemblance, it reflects the history of film-making in Hollywood. Peter Hiscock delved into the history of cinema and provided a close up on the stories we are watching.

Peter Hiscock is Tom Austen Brown Professor of Australian Archaeology at the University of Sydney. He is a film addict and has lectured on archaeology in cinema across three continents. Curiously, major movie companies have attempted to stop his lectures! His most famous publication on film, which appeared in a journal specializing in the history of religion (Numen), explained why Hollywood had been taken over by cult archaeologists. His lectures are both controversial and entertaining.


Annual black-tie dinner 2016

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

Guest of honour: The Society's Vice-Regal Patron, His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (ret'd), Governor of New South Wales
The Distinguished Fellow's Lecture delivered by Emeritus Professor Eugenie Lumbers AM DistFRSN

Wednesday 4 May 2016
Union, University & Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney


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


Eugenie Lumbers AM DistFRSN, Michael Burton and Brynn Hibbert

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

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

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

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


1148th General Monthly Meeting

"The cervical cancer vaccine"

Professor Ian Frazer, Director of the Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research, University of Queensland and Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane, and 2006 Australian of the Year

Wednesday 1 November 2006, 6.30 for 7 pm
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road


About 25% of cancers are initiated by infections, and therefore potentially preventable. Immunotherapy already plays a significant role in cancer control: innate immunostimulators (e.g. imiquimod), passive immunotherapy (e.g. Herceptin) and active specific immunotherapy (e.g. Dendreon's prostate cancer therapeutic) are demonstrated effective, and many further therapies are in late stage clinical trial. Uniquely amongst human cancers, cancer of the cervix can be entirely attributable to an infectious agent. A subset of about 10 human papillomaviruses, termed high risk, are responsible, and two types (HPV16 and HPV18) account for more than 70% of cancers. Infection with high risk human papillomaviruses is extremely common, with up to 50% of women becoming infected during the first 5 years after commencing sexual intercourse. Up to 98% of these infections regress without intervention. Persistent infection conveys substantial risk of cervical cancer . Prevention of cervical cancer at present relies on screening programs. Future programs will likely be based on vaccines, to prevent HPV infection, now licensed in the USA, and Australasia. If administered prior to sexual activity, they will prevent up to 70% of cervical cancer in an unscreened population.


Professor Ian Frazer is the Director of the Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research at the University of Queensland. He was trained as a renal physician and clinical immunologist in Edinburgh, before emigrating to Melbourne in 1981. In 1985 he moved to the University of Queensland and now holds a personal chair as head of the Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research. His current research includes immunoregulation and immunotherapeutic vaccines for papillomavirus-associated cancers. He is on the board of the Queensland Cancer Fund, is Vice-President of the Cancer Council of Australia and advises WHO on papillomavirus.

Report on the General Monthly Meeting by William Sewell

The lecture on 1st November was delivered by Prof Ian Frazer, Australian of the Year for 2006, and Director of the Centre of Immunology and Cancer Research at the University of Queensland. He presented a fascinating overview covering not only his work on the development of the cervical cancer vaccine, but also the role of microbial infections in human cancers in general. The papillomavirus or wart virus is the cause of cervical cancer, which leads to about a quarter of a million deaths per year worldwide. In the early 1990s, Ian Frazer and colleagues developed a mechanism of producing non-infectious virus-like particles from papillomavirus. They were able to use these particles in a vaccine, which leads to long-lasting immunity against papillomavirus infection, and confers protection against cervical cancer. As a result of Ian Frazer's pioneering work, cervical vaccines will shortly become widely available. Cervical cancer is only one example of a cancer caused by a virus. About 25% of cancers worldwide are caused by viruses or bacteria. Ian Frazer highlighted the work of the Australian researchers Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who discovered the link between Helicobacter pylori and stomach ulcers, which are a major cause of stomach cancer. The excellent lecture concluded with an overview of prospects for the future control of cancer.


1147th General Monthly Meeting

"Pandemics, bird flu and the globalisation of fear"

Professor Peter Curson, Macquarie University

Wednesday 4 October 2006, 6.30 for 7 pm
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road


Currently, the world is experiencing two defining events - a panzootic or global outbreak of bird flu, and a pandemic of human reaction and panic. H5N1 is spreading from country to country largely following the fly-paths of migratory birds. No-one really expected the virus to race around the world so quickly. After remaining entrenched among wildlife in parts of Asia, suddenly the virus has moved further afield. No-one really knows why, and there is still much we not understand about the infection. Like the SARS experience, however, the animal infection is at danger in being swamped by the outpouring of human reaction, panic and hysteria. The world press is having a field day, the word pandemic is on everyone's lips, and governments and individuals have been stockpiling antivirals. Pandemic planning has become an industry, and wherever you look, there are dire predictions of millions of deaths and widespread social and economic disruption. The line between responsible precautionary behaviour and alarmist fear mongering has become increasingly blurred. There are two fundamental issues involved. One is the threat to animal life and the related implications for those whose livelihood depends on such animals; the other is the potential threat to humans. They are not the same thing and need to be separated. This talk considers human reaction and behaviour when confronted by pandemic crises.


Peter Curson is Professorial Fellow in Medical Geography and Director of the Health Studies Program at Macquarie University. A former Head of the School of Earth Sciences and Dean of the Division of Environmental & Life Sciences, he is a medical geographer interested in infectious disease and human behaviour, climate change and human health, infectious disease and national security. He has written seven books and many papers on historical epidemics of infectious disease, environment, population health interactions, climate change and infectious disease and international security. Among other things he writes extensively for the Australian and New Zealand national media and is currently working on a book on infectious disease in 20th century Australia.


1146th General Monthly Meeting

"The frontier of measurement: leading-edge standards for length and time"

Dr Bruce Warrington, Head, Time and Frequency Group, National Measurement Institute, Lindfield, Sydney

Wednesday 6 September 2006, 6.30 for 7 pm
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road


Metrology, the science of measurement, is a dynamic field of research. Advances in understanding and technology extend our ability to measure to ever higher levels of precision, and this capability in turn stimulates new applications. The ability to precisely measure time, or its counterpart frequency, underpins modern technology. Frequency is the physical quantity we can measure most accurately, and implements standards for many other physical units, including the metre and the volt. The SI definition of the second presently has an accuracy approaching 1 part in 1012 for commercial standards, and better than 1 part in 1015 for research-grade standards. The relatively recent development of optical 'frequency combs' will further extend this frontier of measurement. These new capabilities at unprecedented levels of precision have the potential to revolutionise our understanding of the physical world and lead to applications previously undreamt of.


Dr Bruce Warrington is the head of the Time and Frequency group at the National Measurement Institute in Lindfield, Sydney. A graduate of the University of Otago, he has a DPhil from Oxford on atomic and laser spectroscopy and fundamental physics. After postdoctoral appointments in Oxford and at the University of Washington in Seattle, he joined the CSIRO National Measurement Laboratory in 1998. He has led the time and frequency area since the formation of the National Measurement Institute in July 2004.


1145th General Monthly Meeting

"The overshadowed centenary - the discovery of the pinch effect in 1905"

A/Prof. Brian James, School of Physics, Sydney University.

Wednesday 2 August 2006, 6.30 for 7 pm
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road


Attempts to harness the enormous nuclear energy available from fusing hydrogen into helium have gone on for half a century. To achieve fusion the hydrogen has to be massively compressed for a sufficient length of time for the reaction to occur. Most of the efforts have been concentrated on confining and compressing a gas discharge in hydrogen. Pulsing a massive current through such a discharge produces a magnetic field that "pinches" or constricts the discharge sufficiently to produce fusion. The problem is to engineer such a fusion reactor so that more power comes out than is required to run it. A new multi-billion-dollar machine, to be built in the south of France, is hoped to achieve this aim at last.

It is a little-known fact that the theory of the Pinch Effect was first published in our journal over 100 years ago, "Note on a Hollow Lightning Conductor Crushed by the Discharge" published in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of NSW 39 (1905) 131-8.

Come and hear how an investigation of a crushed hollow rod from a lightning conductor at a kerosene refinery in Hartley Vale in NSW led in 1905 to the first description of the Pinch Effect by James Pollock, Professor of Physics, University of Sydney and Henry Barraclough, Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering, University of Sydney. With a few diversions along the way, this talk will look at the investigation of the crushed conductor which lead to explaining the Pinch Effect and its subsequent relation to the history and current developments in nuclear fusion research.


Associate Professor Brian James is a graduate of the University of Sydney, where he obtained a PhD in plasma physics. His research area is plasma diagnostics, particularly those methods based on the use of lasers. He has held visiting appointments at the Culham Laboratory UK, UCLA, Kyushu University and Dublin City University. His current research interests are dusty plasmas and atomic beam diagnostics of fusion plasma. In relation to the latter he collaborates with the National Fusion Facility at the ANU. He is currently Head of Physics at the University of Sydney.

Report on the General Monthly Meeting by Jak Kelly

We are indebted to Brian James for bringing to our attention a seminal paper "Note on a Hollow Lightning Conductor Crushed by the Discharge" published in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of NSW 39 (1905) 131-8. It was by James Pollock, Physics and Henry Barraclough, Mechanical Engineering, both of the University of Sydney. In 1905 a copper tube from a lightning conductor at a kerosene refinery in Hartley Vale in NSW was mysteriously crushed by a lightning strike. Their paper solved the mystery as due to the crushing effect of the powerful magnetic field generated by the massive current through the pipe. This 'pinch' effect has over the last century been of importance in a number of fields, particularly the technology for generating power from hydrogen fusion. Starting from Hartley Vale we were taken on a lucid and interesting tour of the basic physics involved and on to current fusion research and its historical development.


1144th General Monthly Meeting

Asian honey bees: biology, conservation and human interactions

A/Prof. Ben Oldroyd, School of Biological Sciences, Sydney University.

Wednesday 5 July 2006, 6.30 for 7 pm
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road


The familiar European hive bee, Apis mellifera, has long dominated honey bee research. But in the last 15 years, teams in China, Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand began to shift focus to the indigenous Asian honey bees. Benjamin Oldroyd, well known for his work on the genetics and evolution of worker sterility, has teamed with Siriwat Wongsiri, a pioneer of the study of bees in Thailand, to produce a new book, recently published by Harvard University Press, synthesizing the rapidly expanding Asian honey bee literature. The talk will provide a synopsis of the book including evolution and speciation, division of labour, communication, and nest defence.

Oldroyd will underscore the pressures colonies face from pathogens, parasites, and predators – including man – and detail the long and amazing history of the honey hunt. He will also discuss directions for conservation efforts to protect these keystone species of Asia's tropical forests.


A/Professor Ben Oldroyd obtained his PhD from Sydney for a thesis on bees. He returned to the University of Sydney in 1995. He previously worked in the Victorian Department of Agriculture, the bee laboratory of USDA at Baton Rouge and La Trobe University. He has published over 100 papers on bee genetics, evolution and behaviour.

Report on the General Monthly Meeting by Jak Kelly

The familiar European hive bee, Apis mellifera, has long dominated honey bee research. Our speaker described the recent change in emphasis by researches in China, Japan, Malaysia, and Thailand away from the European and towards the indigenous Asian honey bees. Professor Oldroyd and Siriwat Wongsiri, a pioneer of the study of bees in Thailand, have recently published a book [Harvard University Press] which synthesizes the rapidly expanding Asian honey bee literature. This lecture was based on material from the book and dealt with the Asian bee's evolution and speciation, division of labour, communication, and nest defence against pathogens, parasites, and predators - including man. Honey has always been a prized food for both animals and man and there were fascinating pictures and descriptions of how local people have developed methods of harvesting the honey. As with an increasing number of natural resources, some of the keystone bee species of Asia's tropical forests are threatened. Some of the conservation efforts to protect these bees were described. A fascinating lecture on a subject which few of us knew much about. Not a good research topic for people allergic to bee stings.


1143rd General Monthly Meeting

"Global evolution of ocean basins"

A/Professor Dietmar Müller
Geosciences, University of Sydney

Wednesday 7 June 2006, 6.30 for 7 pm
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road


The large-scale patterns of mantle convection are mainly dependent on the history of subduction. Hence some of the primary constraints on subduction models are given by the location of subduction zones through time, and of the convergence vectors and age of subducted lithosphere. This requires the complete reconstruction of ocean floor through time, including the main ocean basins, back-arc basins, and now subducted ocean crust, and tying these kinematic models to geodynamic simulations. We reconstruct paleo-oceans by creating "synthetic plates", the locations and geometry of which is established on the basis of preserved ocean crust (magnetic lineations and fracture zones), geological data, paleogeography, and the rules of plate tectonics. We have created a set of global oceanic paleo-isochrons and paleo-oceanic age grids, providing the first complete global set of paleo-basement depth maps, including now subducted ocean floor, for the last 130 million years based on a depth-age relationship. We show that the mid-Cretaceous sea-level high-stand was primarily caused by two main factors: (1) the "super-continent break-up effect", which resulted in the creation of the mid-Atlantic and Indian Ocean ridges at the expense of subducting old ocean floor in the Tethys and (2) by a changing age-area distribution of Pacific ocean floor, resulting from the subduction of the Pacific-Izanagi, Pacific-Phoenix and Pacific-Farallon ridges. These grids provide model constraints for subduction dynamics and represent a framework for back tracking biogeographic and sediment data from ocean drilling and for constraining the opening/closing of oceanic gateways for paleooceanographic models.


Dietmar Müller graduated from the University of Kiel in 1986. His PhD, in 1993, is from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. His work is focussed on global and regional Earth system problems by linking onshore and offshore observations based on geophysical/geological data and kinematic/dynamic process modelling, exploring the possibilities of the emerging area of e-geoscience. He was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2006.

Report on the General Monthly Meeting by Jak Kelly

No brief review such as this can do justice to Professor Müller's impressive computer simulations of the movement of the continents and particularly the changes in the floor of the oceans over the last 130 million years. Accustomed as we are to computer animation, the fact that the motions of the Earth's crust depicted here are based on the best current geological information puts them in another league. We see India racing north [geologically speaking] pushed from behind and dragged by subduction forced to eventually pile up the Himalayas with attendant ocean floor developments. The forces are such that, in spite of these massive mountains, India is still moving north. Australia, moving north at about the rate that fingernails grow, has lagged behind. It will be some time before we crash into Asia and start our own serious mountain building. Most of us knew about this in general but what was new was the detailed information on what has happened over time to our oceans, which have been almost completely reconstructed. Using the rules of plate tectonics and geological data from preserved ocean crust, the paleo-oceans were constructed and their development over time followed. In the Tethys, old ocean floor has been subducted to form the mid-Atlantic and the Indian Ocean ridges. In the Pacific, the Pacific-Izanagi, Pacific-Phoenix and Pacific-Farallon ridges have been subducted to produce the present ocean floor. The impressive computer simulations which encapsulate all this information convey the changes more memorably than could have been achieved by any other method.


1142nd General Monthly Meeting

"The genetics behind our drinking water turning toxic"

Professor Brett Neilan, School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, University of NSW

Wednesday 3 May 2006, 6.30 for 7 pm
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, City Road


Professor Brett Neilan was a member of the team who won the Royal Societies of Australia 2004 Eureka Prize for Interdisciplinary Research.

Report on the General Monthly Meeting by Eveline Baker

Professor Brett Neilan commenced his lecture with the statement that, in a presentation to members of our Society 15 years ago, blue-green algae were a problem that may have a cure. He believes that this is the case in more ways than one. Improving water quality is a process not only in engineering but also in discovery of natural products. Knowledge of the toxins could lead to knowledge of anti-cancer agents. The environment dictates evolution and adaptation. Survival is achieved at the molecular level. The diversity of life on earth and all things biological derives from molecular diversity. Vast stromatolite reefs have survived for about 2.5 giga-years, before the origin of eukaryotic life. Found in selected coastal areas of the world, including Western Australia, these are sedimentary, calcium carbonate based formations, fossils of blue-green algae, not all of which relied on photosynthesis. Interestingly, blue-green algae have a mechanism for surviving in high salt media and even produce calcium carbonate in the laboratory. Secondary ion mass spectrometric data indicate that some of the larger stromatolites may have grown about 10,000 years ago. The Antarctic has melt-water hyper-saline ponds in which "mermaid's hair" proliferates. Toxins have been found in these and similar slime layers. Interestingly, some Africans eat blue-green algae as food. In other areas of the world liver cancer is prevalent in those who drink 'green' water. It is a worthy question to ask why some people survive and others become ill and die. Pathogenicity has been found to be determined by the DNA cluster, not the organism. The level of light determines which promoter is used to transcribe the toxin genes. Toxins have been found to become harmful to animal and human life when they move outside of the cell. The chemical structure of several of these neurotoxins has recently been determined. It is interesting to observe that the toxin molecules are relatively small and similar in structure to some of the currently known natural and synthetic drugs that influence neural activity.

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.

Since April 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face meetings have been replaced by virtual meetings, conducted as Zoom webinars, allowing the events program to continue uninterrupted.  It is hoped that face-to-face meetings can be resumed in late 2020. 

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

Sydney meetings 

Hunter meetings

Southern Highlands meetings



Details of events scheduled for the remainder of the current year by the Southern Highlands branch can be found on its website.

Details of past events held by the Southern Highlands branch can be found here.

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