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Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

2013 Sydney Lecture Series

Meetings are held at various venues in Sydney (be sure to check the web-site a few days before the event for final venue details). Unless indicated, booking is not necessary. All welcome. Meetings usually commence at 6:00 pm for 6:30pm.

Entry is $5 for RSNSW members and there is a charge of $10 for non-members to cover venue hire and a welcome drink. We often have dinner after the meeting (the cost is $75 per head). Pre-booking is appreciated.

1205th Ordinary General Meeting

"The unexpected nuclear renaissance: nuclear techniques benefiting mankind"

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

Wednesday 7 November 2012 at 6.30 pm

Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Meeting report by Donald Hector

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

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

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

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

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

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

1204th Ordinary General Meeting

"Outsmarting superbugs?"

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

Wednesday 3 October 2012 at 6.30 pm

Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Meeting report by James Kehoe and Jude Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1203rd Ordinary General Meeting

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

Professor Derek Eamus, University of Technology, Sydney

Wednesday 5 September 2012 at 6.30 pm

Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Meeting report by Donald Hector

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

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

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

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

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

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

1202nd Ordinary General Meeting

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

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

Wednesday 1 August 2012 at 6.30 pm

Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Meeting report by Donald Hector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dirac Lecture 2012

"The accelerating universe"

Professor Brian Schmidt

Thursday 19 July 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1201st Ordinary General Meeting

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

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

Wednesday 4 July 2012 at 6.30 pm

Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Meeting report by Donald Hector

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

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

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

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

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

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

1200th Ordinary General Meeting

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

Dr. Andrew Jacob, Assistant Curator, Sydney Observatory

Wednesday 6 June 2012 at 6.30 pm

Sydney Observatory, Observatory Hill, Sydney

Meeting report by Donald Hector

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Royal Society of NSW Forum 2012

"The influence of media on scientific research"

Mark Scott AO, Managing Director of the ABC, and Professor Jill Trewhella FRSN, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Sydney

Wednesday 4 April 2012 at 6.30 pm

Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo

Meeting report by Donald Hector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Four Societies Lecture 2012

Lecture delivered at the annual meeting of the Royal Society of NSW, the Australian Nuclear Association, the Nuclear Panel of Engineers Australia, and the Australian Institute of Energy.

"Counting atoms for a living"

Dr Andrew Smith, ANSTO

Wednesday 7 March 2012 at 6 pm

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

Meeting report by Donald Hector

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012 Sydney Lecture Series

Meetings are held at various venues in Sydney (be sure to check the web-site a few days before the event for final venue details). Unless indicated, booking is not necessary. All welcome. Entry is free for RSNSW members. There is a charge of $7 for non-members. Meetings usually commence at 6:00 pm for 6:30pm.

​Wednesday
5 December 2012

1206th Ordinary General Meeting & Christmas Party

Venue: St Paul's College,
University of Sydney,
Sydney

Time: 6:30pm.
​Tuesday
20 November 2012

The Jak Kelly Award

In conjunction with with the Australian Institute of Physics

Venue: Slade Theatre, University of Sydney

Time: Student presentations from 2:30pm to 5:00pm
Lecture by Dr Stephen Bosi at 6:30pm.
​Monday
19 November 2012

The Liversidge Lecture in Chemistry

"Low carbon technologies: from brown coal and biomass to solar hydrogen"

Professor Thomas Maschmeyer FAA FTSE FRACI CChem ARC Future Fellow

Venue: New Law Lecture Theatre 101, New Law Building, Eastern Avenue, University of Sydney.

Time: 5:45 for 6:00pm, followed by a reception at 7:00pm.

See Liversidge for further details regarding Prof Maschmeyer and an abstract of the lecture.
Wednesday
7 November 2012

1205th Ordinary General Meeting

"The unexpected nuclear renaissance: nuclear techniques benefiting mankind"

Speaker: Dr Adi Patterson

Venue: Union Universities & Schools Club,
25 Bent St (cnr Bent and Phillip Sts),
Sydney

Please note dress code: jacket and tie.

Time: 6:30pm. Enjoy a welcome drink from 6:00pm.
​​Wednesday
3 October 2012

​1204th Ordinary General Meeting

"Outsmarting superbugs"

Speaker: Professor Liz Harry

Venue: Union Universities & Schools Club,
25 Bent St (cnr Bent and Phillip Sts),
Sydney

Please note dress code: jacket and tie.

Time: 6:30pm. Enjoy a welcome drink from 6:00pm.
​Wednesday
5 September 2012

1203rd Ordinary General Meeting

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


Speaker: Professor Derek Eamus

Venue: Union Universities & Schools Club,
25 Bent St (cnr Bent and Phillip Sts),
Sydney

Please note dress code: jacket and tie.

Time: 6:30pm. Enjoy a welcome drink from 6:00pm.
​Wednesday
1 August 2012

1202nd Ordinary General Meeting

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

Speaker: Prof. Benjamin Eggleton

Venue: Union Universities & Schools Club,
25 Bent St (cnr Bent and Phillip Sts),
Sydney

Time: 6:30pm.
​​Thursday 19 July
2012

The Dirac Lecture

"The accelerating universe"

Speaker: Professor Brian Schmidt, 2011 Nobel Laureate for Physics

Presented in conjunction with the University of New South Wales and the Australian Institute of Physics.

Venue: Tyree Room, Scientia Building, University of New South Wales

Time: 2:00pm

View the 2012 Dirac Lecture.
​Wednesday
4 July 2012

1201st Ordinary General Meeting

"Autoimmune diseases: obesity, nutrition, exercise and eating disorders"


Speaker: Prof. Ian Caterson AM

Venue: Union Universities & Schools Club,
25 Bent St (cnr Bent and Phillip Sts),
Sydney

Time: 6:30pm.
​Wednesday
6 June 2012

1200th Ordinary General Meeting

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

Speaker: Dr. Andrew Jacob

Venue: Sydney Observatory, Observatory Hill

Time: 6:30pm (doors open at 6:20pm)

Click here for the flyer.

(Please be advised that parking is not provided.)

Our thanks to the Powerhouse Museum for hosting this meeting.

For more information on this rare and important astronomical event, see
www.transitofvenus.com.au
​Wednesday
2 May 2012

​1199th Ordinary General Meeting

Topic: "Understanding multidrug-resistant cancer and how to treat it"

Speaker: A/Prof Mary Bebawy, Associate Professor of Pharmacy at the Graduate School of Health, The University of
Technology Sydney.

Venue: LT024, New Law Building, Eastern Avenue, University of Sydney

Time: 6:30pm.
​Wednesday
4 April

The Royal Society Forum 2012

Topic: "The media and scientific research:
impact and influences"


How is science presented to the general public and is the
community at large well served? The rapid expansion of digital media has meant for the average consumer more and more choice, but is there a temptation to simply gravitate to those outlets that reinforce your own world view? Are your horizons expanding or shrinking?

What does this new media environment mean for the communication and dissemination of science?

MarkScott AO, Managing Director of the ABC and Professor Jill Trewhella FRSN, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Sydney University, will discuss the influence of the media on research.

Moderated by the ABC's Robyn Williams AM.

Venue: The Powerhouse Museum

Time: 6:30pm.

Click here for the flyer. The Forum was broadcast on ABC Radio National's BigIdeas on Thursday 17 May 2012: click broadcast to download the programme.
​Wednesday
4 April

Annual General Meeting

Venue: The Powerhouse Museum

Time: 5:00pm to 5:30pm
​Wednesday
7 March

The Four Societies Lecture

Hosted by the Royal Society of NSW, the Australian Nuclear Association, the Nuclear Panel of Engineers Australia, and the Australian Institute of Energy.

Topic: "Counting atoms for a living - tales of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry".

Speaker: Dr Andrew Smith, Senior Principal Research Scientist , ANSTO.

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

Time: 6:00pm

Proudly sponsored by NSW Trade & Investment and ANSTO.

Click here for the flyer
​Friday
24 February

Annual Dinner

Guest of honour: the Chief Scientist and Engineer of NSW, Professor Mary O'Kane.

Several of the Society's awards were presented on this occasion.

1197th General Meeting

"Grid-connected energy storage: the key to sustainable energy?"

Professor Tony Vassallo, Delta Electricity Chair in Sustainable Energy Development, School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, University of Sydney, NSW 2006

Wednesday 2 November 2011 at 6.30 pm

Lecture Theatre 106, New Law Building, University of Sydney

Many countries in the world are committing large amounts of research resources to the development of sustainable energy generation technologies. One major disadvantage in using electricity as an energy source is that it is difficult to store. Renewable energy sources have the added problem that they are only available at certain times. For example, solar energy is only generated when there is strong sunlight.

At the meeting of the Society in Sydney on 2 November, Professor Tony Vassallo, the Delta Energy Professor of Sustainable Energy Development at the University of Sydney, gave a comprehensive coverage of the issues, challenges and potential advantages of having energy storage that can be directly connected to the electricity distribution grid.

There are important technical and economic reasons for wanting to store energy so it is quickly accessible to the consumer via the grid. Electricity demand varies quite substantially over the day, with this pattern also depending on the time of year. In summer, air-conditioning loads in the afternoon are high, while in winter loads peak in early evening and early morning. Most of Australia's electricity is generated in large, coal-fired power stations and these can take hours to react to changes in demand, so for these to be able to respond without the risk of blackouts, a lot of energy is wasted. Currently, the only means of providing reasonably responsive energy to the grid is via the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric system.

Many technologies are currently being developed to provide energy storage capacity. These include thermal storage using molten salt (for example, in Spain), hydroelectric storage, compressed air, superconducting magnets, ultra-capacitors, high-energy/high-efficiency flywheels and a range of battery technologies.

One promising technology avenue is integrating battery technology with renewables. For example, used in conjunction with wind energy generation, battery storage can reduce short-term fluctuations and allows dispatch when the load is high. It also allows a higher proportion of the total wind generation capacity to be included in the calculation of base-load capacity and lowers the capital cost of transmission equipment because the variability in load is reduced. The question Professor Vassallo addressed was: is battery technology feasible?

Currently large battery banks have been installed in pilot installations in other parts of the world, for example a 34 MW battery bank in a 50 MW wind-farm in Japan. But it may not be necessary to install such large battery banks that have high capital cost. For example, batteries can be distributed throughout the grid to zone substations and local substations. Another innovative concept is to use the batteries in electric cars to provide storage – during the times when demand is high and cars are not being used (for example early afternoon on a hot day), car batteries connected to the grid could provide localised storage capacity. Commercial models of these concepts are currently under development.

Professor Vassallo's own research programme relates to developing advanced battery and super capacitor technologies, such as graphene/nanotube capacitors, the use of regenerative fuel cells and the role of distributed storage in electricity networks.

1196th General Meeting

"Sex in the sea: how understanding the weird and bizarre sex lives of fishes is the first step to their conservation"

Professor Bill Gladstone, Head of the School of the Environment, University of Technology Sydney

Wednesday 5 October 2011 at 6.30 pm

Lecture Theatre 106, New Law Building, University of Sydney

In 1938 the pioneer deep sea explorer William Beebe described the sex life of anglerfishes as "sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it". Beebe would be equally amazed today by the even more diverse reproductive strategies of fishes that have been discovered, and how this understanding is applied for conservation. This seminar will cover some of the more weird and bizarre examples of the sex lives of fishes from the deep sea to the Red Sea, the evolutionary pressures, and how this science of sex in the sea is being used for conservation purposes.

1195th General Meeting

"Distributed small-scale production of chemicals - why and how"

Professor Brian Haynes

Wednesday 7 September 2011 at 6.30 pm

Seminar Room 102, New Law Building, University of Sydney

In the last two decades tens of thousands of jobs have been lost from the Australian chemical manufacturing sector. As Professor Brian Haynes of the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Sydney explained, there are a number of reasons for this. In Australia, feed-stocks often are in remote locations, the nation is geographically remote from large global markets, Australian industry has traditionally had a low R&D expenditure, and the domestic market often does not justify investment in world-scale manufacturing capacity. Nonetheless, sales of chemicals and pharmaceuticals in Australia amount to tens of billions of dollars per annum and contribute significantly to Australia's balance of trade deficit. Professor Haynes' group at the University of Sydney has been working on technologies that might change this situation dramatically. 

One of the important reasons that chemical plants are so big is that the relative capital cost per unit of production drops substantially as plant capacity increases. Historically, large plant capacity has been achieved by designing and building very large production equipment. This solves the capacity/cost problem but introduces other major costs and inefficiencies. In particular it is much more difficult to control chemical reactions in large reactors (so impurities and by-products are produced and have to be dealt with) and, often, energy efficiency is compromised. An alternative being explored by Professor Haynes' group is to used advanced reactor design technologies to make relatively small and highly efficient manufacturing processes that are scalable simply by adding more of them rather than by building very large production equipment. This approach enables production capacity to be located near feed-stocks or customers, capital costs are much lower, the process has much reduced environmental impact, is safer to operate and is more energy efficient. 

This "process intensification" approach to chemical reactor design uses technology that is analogous to that used in printed circuits. By etching or engraving small channels in plates of stainless steel (or other alloys) and stacking and then fusing the plates, pipework, heat exchangers and reaction vessels can be formed. Because of their very small size, control of reaction kinetics, heat transfer and mass transfer can be very precisely controlled. 

One way of achieving this is to design a series of small reactors known as "multiple adiabatic beds" laid out with heat exchangers between each bed. This enables maximisation of the heat generated during a reaction and gives very high energy efficiency. One important industrial process where this approach is being used is in "methane-steam reforming" in which methane and steam are reacted first to form carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and then the carbon monoxide being further reacted with steam to form carbon dioxide and hydrogen. For every mole of methane used, four moles of hydrogen are produced. Large processes currently use steam to reform natural gas (which has contains a high proportion of methane), producing large quantities of hydrogen for industrial use. In large-scale industrial processes, there is a great deal of heat wasted but using the process intensification approach, much greater energy efficiency is achieved. The group at Sydney University has demonstrated this process on a pilot unit which is both scalable and, unlike large industrial processes can be started in a matter of a couple of hours. 

There are number of other important processes that are used on very large scales to make industrial chemicals where this technology can be employed. These can be ideal for relatively small industrial economies like Australia and other markets remote from large-scale plants.

1194th General Meeting

"Schizophrenia: from neuropathology to new treatments"

Professor Cyndi Shannon Weickert, Macquarie Group Foundation Chair of Schizophrenia Research, Neuroscience Research Australia and UNSW, and Professor, School of Psychiatry, UNSW

Wednesday 3 August 2011 at 6.30 pm

Seminar Room 102, New Law Building, University of Sydney

Is schizophrenia caused by genes or environment? This question was posed by Professor Cyndi Shannon Weickert at the 1194th ordinary general meeting of the Society. 

Schizophrenia was first formally classified in 1887. Despite extensive pathological investigation there was no clear distinction identified between the brains of people who have schizophrenia and those who do not. Until 1930s it was considered to be primarily a behavioural disorder put down to bad mothering. But in the 1930s treatments involving insulin and shock therapy were shown to be somewhat effective. There was a breakthrough in 1952 when D2R blockers were introduced and found to be effective against some of the symptoms. However, it was not until 1988 that the first definite genetic link was established by progress was swift and in the last decade it has been shown that there may be several hundred genes involved in the disorder. Because of the large number of genes that are implicated, identifying treatments that target these genes is extraordinarily complex. Most researchers in the field now believe that the disease has both environmental and genetic origins. 

The approach taken by Professor Shannon Weickert's group is to attempt to identify the pathology of various genetic pathways to the disease, in particular identifying molecules that can be new drug targets. Once these have been postulated, the aim is to use existing drugs which are either known to or believed to affect those targets and then to test their effect in clinical trials. This approach has the advantage of using drugs that have already been approved for use in humans thereby avoiding the necessity for time- consuming and expensive early-stage clinical trials that establish general parameters such as toxicity and dosage levels. 

One notable aspect of schizophrenia is that it is virtually never found in children prior to adolescence. Most cases of schizophrenia are diagnosed from mid-teens to the early 20s but, interestingly, there is a second peak among women at menopause. This suggests that sex hormones could be an important part of the mechanism causing the disorder. Oestrogen receptors are found in the human cortex and act as "transcription factors", that is, they transport proteins across the cell membrane into the nucleus of the neuron. On investigating oestrogen receptor proteins a mutation specific to schizophrenia has been found in a transcription factor protein called ESR1. This protein cannot bind to oestrogen and hence cannot pass hormonal signals into the nucleus of the cell. Hence, the cell cannot activate important genes that produce their normal proteins and this may cause some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

 An existing drug, raloxifene, has already been approved as a selective oestrogen receptor modulator for treating various disorders in postmenopausal women. Raloxifene has been found to stimulate the oestrogen receptor and overcome the mutant effect in the ESR1 gene. However, the great variability of genes means that the drug effect on one specific mutation is likely to be masked, so there needs to careful design of clinical trials to make the effect apparent. One such trial is currently being conducted by Professor Shannon Weickert's group and involves a double-blind trial in which patients and control groups are treated in two stages, with all trial participants receiving the drug in one or other of the stages. This clinical trial is still under way and is expected to be completed towards the end of this year. If successful it may be a major step in establishing personalised drug treatments for the 1% of the human population that currently suffers the debilitating effects of schizophrenia. [The May 2009 edition of the ABC's Australian Story was on Professor Shannon Weickert's work and is available at http://www.abc.net.au/austory/specials/allinyourmind/default.htm. Anyone interested in the clinical trial may be interested to read the transcript or to view it.]

1193rd General Meeting

"Stem cells and regenerative medicine: prospects for realising the Prometheus myth"

Professor John Rasko, Centenary Institute

Wednesday 6 July 2011, 6.30 for 7 pm

Lecture Theatre 106, New Law Building, University of Sydney

Professor John Rasko was appointed to the first clinical gene therapy position in Australia. Currently, he is head of the gene and stem cell therapy programme at the Centenary Institute and is a Professor in the faculty of medicine at Sydney University. At the general meeting of the Society on Wednesday 6 July, Professor Rasko gave a wide-ranging talk on the status of cellular therapies for regenerative medicine and cancer treatment and the potential and use of both embryonic and adult stem cells in the treatment of a wide range of diseases. Importantly, there was a comprehensive discussion on the ethical issues in relation to the use of both embryonic and adult stem cells, not only in the treatment of disease but also the implications for technologies such as in-vitro fertilisation. 

The Centenary Institute has a large research programme for cellular medicine and extraordinarily sophisticated facilities for the manufacture and cultivation of biological material. This includes four specialised laboratories with hyper-pure air flow, positive air pressure differentials, both for preventing contamination and the release of biologically-active material and sophisticated human-access protocols. 

Research programmes include techniques such as extraction and cultivation of red cells and bone marrow prior to treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy in order to speed up patient recovery and exploring the extent to which adult stem cells might be used as a source of genetic material to help rebuild damage organs such as the liver, and blood and bone marrow. 

Professor Rasko explained the potential of embryonic stem cells that, one day, might be used to treat a range of diseases by replacing damaged or diseased tissue. Embryonic stem cells are taken from embryos at the time when little differentiation between cells has yet taken place. These stem cells theoretically are able to be cultivated and differentiated as "master cells" that could produce all types of fully-differentiated tissue in the body. Despite the theoretical potential for these, progress has been slow. The medical drawbacks of using embryonic stem cells are that the embryo has the same immune signature as the mother and father, so recipients of tissue cultivated from these cells would mean constant immunosuppressant therapy. So far, only three clinical trials have been undertaken. But a more significant challenge for embryonic stem cells may well be the moral issues. Pro-life groups have opposed the use of embryonic stem cells because they believe that cells taken from an embryo have the potential to form a complete individual; to them, destroying such an embryo amounts to taking a human life.

 An alternative to using embryonic stem cells is to take adult cells and to reprogram them to make them the same as embryonic cells. In the last few years, there appears to have been significant progress in making so-called "induced pluripotent stem cells". If this technology turns out to be viable (and there are still many challenges that have been identified), it could solve a number of the issues of embryonic stem cells. For example, because adult cells could be taken from the individual requiring treatment, induced pluripotent stem cells could be used without the need for immunosuppressant therapy. It also avoids the moral controversy that surrounds the destruction of an embryo. But this may not be the panacea that many had hoped for. There are two medical disadvantages in "reprogramming" cells: two of the transgenes required are oncogenic so pose an enhanced risk of inducing cancer in the patient; and the viruses used to carry the transgenes can be incorporated into the genetic material of cells and the consequences of this are unpredictable. It also appears that the older the organism, the more abnormalities there are in the resultant stem cell. Furthermore, the ethical issues may not be solved either. To date the efficacy of all adult stem cells need to be compared against embryonic stem cells, so the research programmes cannot be separated. In addition, there is the moral argument that if every cell in your body has the potential to produce a full range of differentiated cells (perhaps even a fully-formed individual) then it could be argued that every cell in your body has the same moral status as you do!

1192nd General Meeting

"Variation of fundamental constants: from the Big Bang to atomic clocks"

Professor Victor Flambaum, School of Physics, University of New South Wales

Wednesday 1 June 2011 at 6.30 pm

Lecture Theatre 106, New Law Building, University of Sydney

Modern unification theories suggest the fundamental constants (like the speed of light) may change in an expanding Universe. The study of quasar spectra has indicated the variation of the fine structure constant alpha in space (alpha is the dimensionless combination of electron charge, the speed of light and the quantum Planck constant). This spatial variation could explain the fine tuning of the fundamental constants which allows humans (and any life) to appear. If the fundamental constants were even slightly different, life could not exist. We appeared in the area of the Universe where the values of the fundamental constants are consistent with our existence. 

These astrophysical results may be used to predict the variation effects for atomic clocks. These effects in atomic clocks are very small and require extremely high precision. Therefore, we are searching for the enhanced effects of the variation. One of our proposals is to use a nuclear clock where the effect is enhanced by five orders of magnitude.

1191st General Meeting

"Heading towards the world's largest telescope: the Square Kilometre Array"

Professor Michael Burton, School of Physics, University of NSW

Wednesday 4 May 2011 at 6.30 pm

Eastern Avenue Auditorium, University of Sydney

Meeting report by Donald Hector 

What do the kinetic energy of a falling snow-flake and radio telescopes have in common? Well, as Professor Michael Burton pointed out in his talk on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the energy of a falling snowflake is about 30 microjoules and this is greater than all of the radio energy ever collected by all the radio telescopes in the world! These instruments are very sensitive! Radio astronomy looks at a part of the electromagnetic spectrum at wavelengths from 1 m to 1 km. Observations in the visible spectrum are badly affected by dust but this is not the case in the radio spectrum. Thus by combining information from optical, infrared and radio telescopes we can get a much more complete picture of what's going on in the universe. But because of the long wavelengths of radio waves, these instruments have to be very big. For example, the Parkes telescope with its 64 m diameter dish has an area of about 1000 m². This telescope can resolve galaxies but in order to increase the resolution to look inside galaxies, much larger instruments are needed. 

The largest radio telescope in the world at the moment is the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. This instrument has 27 dishes each of 25 m diameter, with a total area of 10,000 m². These antennas are configured in a Y-shaped that can deliver an effective maximum baseline of 32 km. Data from each array is integrated using interferometry techniques effectively giving a telescope of this aperture. This substantially increases the effective resolution of the instrument. The VLA is capable of looking at radio sources such as pulsars, quasars and give insights into the formation of galaxies. If we are to be able to look further back through the history of the universe to the dust from which galaxies form, we need instrument orders of magnitude bigger than the VLA and that's where the SKA comes in. 

The SKA will be the largest telescope ever built with a collection area of 1,000,000 m² and a baseline of at least 2,000 km. The SKA will be able to peer far back into the history of the universe to observe the first black holes and stars, to search for Earth-like planets, to test aspects of general relativity, and to explore the origins of cosmic magnetism. 

The total cost of this project will be about $3 billion and the telescope is expected to be in full operation by 2025. Because of the cost of the project, up to 20 countries will be involved in the investment. About $450 million has been invested so far with prototype technologies being constructed in potential locations for the final instrument in southern Africa and Western Australia. The core instrument (where most of the dishes are located) needs to be sited in a "radio quiet" location. It needs to be flat, open, geologically stable and well away from man-made sources of radio waves. Final site selection is expected to be complete next year. The telescope will come on-line over a period of about 10 years, with the low and mid-frequency capabilities completed by 2023 and the whole instrument by 2025. Australia is well placed to be selected as the final site, given our leadership in radio astronomy and the 'radio quietness' of outback Australia. If Australia is chosen, the core instrument will be located at the Murchison Radio Observatory about 500 km north-east of Geraldton and will have dishes extending from Western Australia to New Zealand, giving a total baseline of 5,500 km.

The Dirac Lecture 2011

"Beauty and truth: their intersection in mathematics and science"

Robert, Lord May of Oxford, AC FRSN

Friday 29 April 2011 at 6.30 pm

Scientia Building, University of NSW

Meeting report by Donald Hector 

On 29 April 2011, Robert Lord May of Oxford, arguably the greatest mathematician that Australia has produced, was invested as a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW by the Governor. Earlier that day, Lord May presented the Dirac Lecture at the University of New South Wales, jointly sponsored by the Society. He took us on interesting exploration of some of the important concepts of mathematics, from Euclidean geometry via the concept of imaginary numbers to the mathematics of fractals and chaos theory and the extraordinary power of mathematics to describe observed real-world phenomena. 

Updating the observation by Galileo, "this grand book is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric objects", Lord May pointed out that rather than triangles and circles, today the mathematical objects are more likely to be fractals and "strange attractors". Nonetheless, as Galileo observed, and referring to the examples of Julia sets and Mandelbrot sets, there is great beauty in the elegance with which we can both describe and understand the immense complexity of the universe. He went on to explore the paradigm shift that Einstein divined from the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment that had found that the speed of light was the same for all observers. Einstein's formulation of the special theory of relativity led to a profound shift in our understanding of the relationships between momentum, mass and energy that has enabled extraordinary insights and understanding of the nature of the universe, from gravity to nuclear fission. Lord May pointed out that, regrettably, many of the great contributions do not get the recognition that they deserve. In his view, Paul Dirac was such a person – his formulation of the Dirac equation and its implication of the existence of positrons was one of the greatest steps forward in theoretical physics in the 20th century, yet his name is nowhere near as well known as that of Einstein. 

Quoting Keats "beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know", Lord May observed: well yes, but not really.

the Royal Society of NSW Forum 2011

"Belief and science: the belief/knowledge dilemma"

Barry Jones and David Malouf

Wednesday 6 April 2011 at 6 pm

The Darlington Centre, University of Sydney

Barry Jones
Have scientists become polarised into believers and non-believers? Barry Jones posed this question to David Malouf and members of the Society at the 1190th General Meeting​ on Wednesday, 6 April 2011. Reflecting upon this, Barry referred to the scientific paradigm that has emerged over the last several hundred years: scientists gather information in order to try to make sense of observed phenomena using rational analysis. Science has evolved to become not so much a matter of belief but rather of acceptance of the most sensible explanation based on the accumulation of evidence. Nonetheless, when major paradigm shifts in scientific thinking take place, there are often eminent experts who disagree and refuse to accept the new theory. This slows down the acceptance of a new paradigm but ultimately in most cases rational thought prevails.
David Malouf

David Malouf pointed out that non-scientists have to rely on what they are told in order to evaluate scientific theories. He pointed out the significant shift since the 18th century when early scientists put their theories to learned academies (such as the Royal Society, London) for expert examination and they determined what was accepted as scientific knowledge and what was rejected. Today, however, with the highly complex issues that society faces there are significant public policy implications that need to be resolved based on expert advice. But what do we do when the experts disagree? We are largely dependent on the media to inform us. This is further complicated because important issues are usually not just scientific in their nature but often have economic and social imperatives that commercial groups, governments and other interests seek to manipulate. Barry commented that the sheer complexity of science has forced scientists to increasing specialisation. Furthermore, scientists are heavily reliant on research grants from government and private enterprise and this has discouraged them from entering into controversies. This is quite different to the era of only 50 or 70 years ago when renowned scientists were not afraid to comment outside their area of specific expertise.

In their final comments, Barry emphasised that the task of a scientist is to analyse inconceivably complex data and make sense of it but the public policy imperatives are driven by media outcomes and necessarily requires the debate to be simplistic. David is fascinated by the rate of change of technology and almost unexpectedly has come to the realisation that the more we know about the complexities of nature, of the human body, the weather and so on, it simply exposes ever more questions. Science has been enormously successful and exciting in bringing an understanding in a world that we know so little about.

Royal Society events

The Royal Society of NSW organizes a number of events in Sydney throughout the year.  These include Ordinary General Meetings (OGMs) held on the first Wednesday of the month (there is no meeting in January).  Society business is conducted, new Fellows and Members are inducted, and reports from Council are given to the membership.  This is followed by a talk and optional dinner.  Drinks are served before the meeting.  There is a small charge to attend the meeting and talk, 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 in February has speakers drawn from the Royal Society Scholarship winners, and 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 (with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia)
  • The Dirac lecture (with UNSW Australia and the Australian Institute of Physics)
  • The Liversidge Medal lecture (with the Royal Australian Chemical Institute)
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