Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

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 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.

1189th General Meeting

Lecture delivered for the Two Societies Meeting:
"Searching for nanosecond laser pulses from outer space"

Dr Ragbir Bhathal, University of Western Sydney

Tuesday 22 March 2011 at 6 pm

School of Physics, University of Sydney

Meeting report by Dr Frederick Osman 

On Tuesday 22 March 2011, the Australian Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of New South Wales held their annual Two Societies meeting at the University of Sydney and featured Dr Ragbir Bhathal on his topic of searching for very fast light flashes.

 Dr Bhathal opened his talk by saying that we should be searching for nanosecond laser pulse from ETI. He believes that ETI would have surpassed the microwave threshold and gone on to use laser pulses for intergalactic communications. A nanosecond laser pulse has several advantages, he said. Apart from its directivity, a 1015 W or more nanosecond laser pulse would outshine its star by four to seven orders of magnitude. This pulse could thus be easily detected by present day optical telescopes equipped with fast-response PMTs or APDs. Because the telescopes are being used as photon buckets they need not be highly sophisticated. The fact that the National Ignition Facility in the US has been able to generate 1015 W laser pulses although for a few nanoseconds lends credibility to the use of lasers as communication devices by ETI civilisations. The optical search strategy has been used in a dedicated mode only for the last ten years. Four groups, three in United States (Harvard University/Princeton University, University of California and the SETI Institute) and one in Australia (OZ OSETI Project at the University of Western Sydney) have led the charge for the optical search strategy. 

Dr Bhathal's optical search is the longest dedicated optical search in the Southern Hemisphere. Last year a group of Japanese scientists and engineers also joined the optical and microwave searches. However, to date no positive signals in the optical spectrum have been received. Although a laser look alike signal was detected in 2008 by Dr Bhathal emanating from the globular cluster 47 Tucanae it was dismissed after a six month search in the same region failed to detect the signal again. Considered as the father of SETI in Australia, Dr Bhathal hopes to continue the optical search with a new dedicated one-metre telescope which is on the drawing boards at the moment. Dr Bhathal also discussed the latest developments in the microwave search strategy which clocked 50 years last year and other programs which are underway for searching for life in the universe, such as searching for glycine, searching for earth like planets by extra-solar planet scientists and the Kepler mission, the Mars explorations and meteorites. 

Dr Bhathal ended his lecture by quoting from the great 19th century mathematician and physicist Karl Gauss who said that the detection of a signal from ETI "would be greater than the discovery of America". The Australian Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of New South Wales thank Dr Ragbir Bhathal for his outstanding lecture!


1188th General Meeting

Lecture delivered for the Four Societies Meeting:
"Geothermal energy - current state of play and developments"

Dr Stuart McDonnell, Geodynamics Ltd

Mr Stephen de Belle, Granite Power Ltd

Thursday 24 February 2011 at 6 pm

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

Meeting report by Donald Hector 

The annual meeting of the "Four Societies" - the Royal Society of NSW, the Australian Nuclear Association, the Nuclear Engineering Panel of Engineers Australia (Sydney Division), and the Australian Institute of Energy - heard two perspectives on geothermal energy as a major energy source for the generation of electric power. The speakers were Dr Stuart McDonnell, chief operating officer of Geodynamics Ltd and Stephen de Belle, managing director of Granite Power Ltd. Both companies are developing 'hot rocks' technology for the generation of electricity. The technological concept behind this technology is straightforward enough: a source of hot rock, typically granite at temperatures of 150-300 °C at depths between 1500 m and 5000 m below the Earth's surface, is identified. The rock is fractured and water is pumped under high pressure from the surface down through the hot rock where it is heated to very high temperatures. When the water returns to the surface, the energy is used to drive turbines which in turn generate electricity. The thermal resources in Australia are huge­- in the Cooper Basin alone, there are hot rock deposits capable of generating as much electricity as burning 750 million tonnes of coal or 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. 

Of course, the devil is in the detail. It is technologically challenging and expensive to drill to these depths. In addition, there are other significant technological challenges that need to be resolved such as fluid chemistry when the hot water reacts with the minerals in the rock and the components in the system, the ability to manage multiple fracture-zones in order to extract the maximum amount of heat, the gradual reduction of the temperature of the resource over time, and the challenges in creating viable, efficient heat exchanger designs in rock several kilometres beneath the Earth's surface. 

If these technological and economic issues can be overcome, geothermal generation is well placed to provide a substantial proportion of Australia's baseload electricity demand. This could be as high as 2,300 MW of base-load capacity by 2020. Some government and private funding has already been committed with the intention to seek further capital from institutional investors during 2011.


Annual Dinner and Awards 2011

The Society held its Annual Dinner for 2011 at St Paul's College, University of Sydney on Friday 18 February 2011. Our guest-of-honour was the Governor of NSW, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, one of our two Patrons and a long-standing supporter of the Society. We were also pleased to have three Deans of Science from universities in Sydney present. In her Occasional Address Her Excellency made reference to the antecedents of the Society and the work of one of her predecessors, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, in creating a climate in which Societies such as ours might germinate. We appreciate her support and that of the unbroken line of her predecessors.
The Governor, Marie Bashir, presents Fellowship to Professor Michelle Simmons.
The Governor, Marie Bashir, presents Fellowship to Emeritus Scientia Professor Eugenie Lumbers.
The Governor, Marie Bashir, congratulates Dr Ken Campbell on his award of the Clarke Medal.​
The Governor, Marie Bashir, presents Assoc. Prof. Angela Moles with the Edgeworth David Medal.​
The Governor, Marie Bashir, presents Prof. Rick Shine with the Walter Burfitt Prize.​
The Governor, Marie Bashir, presents Dr Julian King with the joint AIP/Royal Society of NSW Studentship Award.​
The Governor, Marie Bashir, with Society President John Hardie after he presented her with a token of the Society's appreciation.​
Vice President, Heinrich Hora, gives the vote of thanks.​

2011 Sydney Lecture Series

24th February

​The Four Societies Lecture. Hosted by Australian Nuclear Association, Nuclear Panel of
Engineers Australia, Australian Institute of Energy and The Royal Society of NSW
1188th Ordinary General Meeting

Geothermal Energy - Current State of Play and Developments

Dr Stuart Mc Donnell, Chief Operating Officer for Geodynamics and
Mr Stephen de Belle of Granite Power.

Venue: Hamilton Room, Trade & Investment Centre, Industry & Investment NSW,
Level 47, MLC Centre, 19 Martin Place, Sydney. Time: 5.30pm for 6.00pm
22nd March

​The Two Societies Meeting - Australian Institute of Physics and Royal Society of NSW.

1189th Ordinary General Meeting

Searching for Nanosecond Laser Pulses from Outer Space
Dr Ragbir Bhathal

Venue: Slade Lecture, Theatre, School of Physics, University of Sydney.
6th April

1190th Ordinary General Meeting & 144th AGM

Belief and Science: the Belief/Knowledge Dilemma

Join David Malouf and Barry Jones discuss the Belief/Knowledge Dilemma.​
29th April

​Dirac Lecture 2011

Beauty and truth: their intersection in mathematics
and science

Lord May of Oxford.

Presented in conjunction with the University of New South Wales.

View the 2011 Dirac Lecture

4th May

​1191st Ordinary General Meeting

Heading Towards the World's Largest Telescope: The Square Kilometre Array

Professor Michael Burton, School of Physics, University of New South Wales
1st June

1192nd Ordinary General Meeting

Variation of Fundamental Constants from Big Bang to Atomic Clocks

Professor Victor Flambaum, School of Physics, University of New South Wales​
6th July

​1193rd Ordinary General Meeting

Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine: Prospects for Realising the Prometheus Myth

Professor John Rasko, Centenary Institute, University of Sydney and RPA Hospital

6.30 pm at the New Law Building, University of Sydney
3rd August

​1194th Ordinary General Meeting

Schizophrenia: from Neuropathology to New Treatments

Professor Cyndi Shannon Weickert, Macquarie Group Foundation Chair of Schizophrenia Research,

NeuRA, SRI and UNSW, and Professor, School of
Psychiatry, UNSW

6.00 for 6.30 pm at the New Law Seminar Room 102, New Law Building, University of Sydney
7th September

​1195th Ordinary General Meeting

Distributed Small-Scale Production of Chemicals - Why and How

Professor Brian Haynes, Sydney University

6.00 for 6.30 pm at the New Law Seminar Room 102, New Law Building, University of Sydney
5th October

​1196th Ordinary General Meeting

Sex in the Sea: How Understanding the Weird and Bizarre Sex Lives of Fishes is the First Step to their Conservation

Prof. William Gladstone, University of Technology, Sydney

6.00 for 6.30 pm at the New Law Seminar Room 102, New Law Building, University of Sydney
2nd November

​1197th Ordinary General Meeting

Grid-Connected Energy Storage: the Key to Sustainable Energy?

Professor Tony Vassallo, Sydney University

6.00 for 6.30 pm at the New Law Seminar Room 102, New Law Building, University of Sydney
7th December

​1198th Ordinary General Meeting

Studentship Awards and Christmas Party

6.00 for 6.30 pm at St Pauls College, University of Sydney
13th December

​Clarke Memorial Lecture
with a cocktail reception following.

5.30 pm at Eastern Avenue Auditorium, Eastern Avenue, University of Sydney.

2010 Liversidge Lecture in Chemistry

"Belief in science"

Professor John White CMG FAA FRS, Australian National University

Friday 26 November 2010 at 5.30 pm

Lecture Theatre 1, Merewether Building, University of Sydney

The achievements of science in the last 400 years have been of great benefit to humanity and are appreciated widely. Less well understood is how personal attributes of awareness, excitement, frustration and recognition of beauty are central to successful science. These very human qualities play a role in making discoveries. Scientists' optimism, suspended disbelief, and a reliance on empiricism are as much part of the scientific method as clear logic. Science requires absolute honesty and care about conclusions to be believable. Science is not autonomous and the sometimes necessarily tentative opinions are often incomprehensible and even unacceptable to the public – we must do better in explaining! Professor White's lecture will also examine some of his recent work on the structure and function of industrially valuable explosive emulsions – understood by the novel neutron scattering methods of 'contrast variation' pioneered in his research.

John White is currently Professor of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University. Graduating from Sydney University, he went to Oxford University on an 1851 scholarship in 1959. He became a Research Fellow of Lincoln College before finishing his DPhil and an official Fellow of St John's College Oxford in 1963. He is one of the discoverers of isotopic contrast variation in neutron scattering – which is currently used worldwide for understanding the structure of "soft matter".


1186th General Meeting

"Powering the US grid from solar and wind"

Dr David Mills, co-founder of Ausra, Inc.

Wednesday 3 November 2010 at 7 pm

Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, University of Sydney

Solar and wind are our two largest energy resources and are well distributed globally. In these respects, they are ideal to re-power humanity with little climate or political impact. Some say that such a strategy is not practical because the solar resource disappears at night and each wind generator can be highly variable in output. However, the impact of already commercially available solar thermal storage technology, together with the overlap effects of wind energy from many sites may prove otherwise.

The first example used is the USA 2006 electrical load calculated on an hourly basis from government data and the second is a total energy supply scenario. A high voltage DC grid backbone (commercially available today) is assumed to allow full access of delivered power to all parts of the country. National wind and solar output are calculated hourly using government resource data. The initial results of the analysis are presented together with a discussion of the roles of solar and wind in such a new system, in comparison to conventional baseload/peaking thinking.

The talk will begin with an update of Dr Mills' company's activities in the United States since his leaving Sydney in early 2007, followed by an update of today's solar technology. The main part of the talk describes private work in progress by the author and his colleagues in the United States to take a first look at the feasibility of powering the United States energy system entirely from wind and sun by mid-century.

Dr Mills is the former Head of the Solar Energy Group at the University of Sydney and past President of the International Solar Energy Society. He is the co-founder and former chairman of the SHP and Ausra companies.


1185th General Meeting

"Is the climate right for nuclear power?"

Dr Ziggy Switkowski, Chair of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization

Wednesday 6 October 2010 at 7 pm

Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, University of Sydney

The world is experiencing a strong warming trend believed to be driven by greenhouse gas emissions associated with the burning of fossil fuels for energy production. Australia's demand for electricity, and energy in general, is expected to double by 2050. The challenge is to moderate and meet this growing demand in an environmentally responsible way. Nuclear power is already widely used around the world and the debate for its deployment in Australia is well under way.

This presentation will review the nuclear fuel cycle in the context of low emission energy technology and point to the potential role of nuclear power in Australia's energy and climate change strategy.

Dr Ziggy Switkowski is the Chair of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. He is also a non-executive director of Suncorp, Tabcorp and Healthscope, and Chair of Opera Australia. He is a former chief executive of Telstra, Optus and Kodak (Australia).

In 2006 he chaired the Prime Minister's Review of Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy which returned nuclear power to the country's strategic debate. He has a PhD in nuclear physics from the University of Melbourne and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.


1184th General Meeting

"Long-term changes in solar activity – including the current Grand Minimum"

Ken McCracken, Jellore Technologies and Senior Research Associate, University of Maryland

Wednesday 1 September 2010 at 7 pm
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, University of Sydney

The sunspot record since Galileo's time, and the cosmogenic nuclides 10Be (in ice cores) and 14C (in tree rings) show that the degree of activity of the Sun has varied greatly over time. The solar activity, manifested by the occurrence of sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections may be quite high, as it has been since 1946; and was during Roman times, or very small as during the Maunder Minimum (1645-1715); the Dalton Minimum (1810-20) or the Gleissberg Minimum of 1900-10. In the first part of the lecture, the speaker will discuss his recent studies with Swiss colleagues of the last 10,000 years of 10Be data from the Arctic and Antarctic that shows that the Sun has exhibited a number of persistent periodicities in solar activity, the most important being of duration 2300yr, 210yr, ~85yr, and the well known 11/22 year solar cycle. He will also outline the last 30 years of satellite data that show that the solar irradiance varies by ~0.1% over the 11 year solar cycle.

Against that background, he will then describe the substantial reduction in solar activity that commenced in 2006. Since then, the sunspot behaviour has been similar to that during the Dalton minimum (1810-20). The interplanetary magnetic fields have been lower than at any time during the space age, and the cosmic radiation intensities are well above those at any time during the past 60 years. The solar irradiance has decreased well below that observed in the previous 30 years. The evidence indicates that the magnetic properties of the Sun are now very different from those at any time in the "Space Age". Based on the 10,000 year 10Be record, he will speculate that the Sun will remain relatively inactive (and cool) for the next 20 years, and it will then resume a steadily increasing state of activity until it reaches a peak of the Hallstatt (2300 year) cycle ~200 years in the future.

Ken McCracken has had a long and varied life as a scientist, technologist, and contrarian. Starting his research career in Tasmania and New Guinea in the 1950s, he was then deeply involved in the early days of the US space program for seven years while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Texas. He designed and built scientific instruments that were flown on seven spacecraft that went to the orbits of Mars and Venus in the 1960s to provide the information needed to protect the US astronauts from being killed, or losing their virility, en route to the Moon. Following a professorship at the University of Adelaide, CSIRO appointed him to inaugurate a new research laboratory to improve geophysical exploration for minerals in the harsh Australian environment. Moving to the Southern Highlands in 1989, he operated a consultancy providing scientific advice to the mining industry. Over the past decade he and his Swiss, US, and Australian colleagues have used results from ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica to understand how the Sun has waxed and waned in activity over the past 10,000 years, and how this has paralleled the twenty two little ice ages, and many warming periods in the Earth's climate over the past 10,000 years. With his wife Gillian, he owns and operates the 850 acre beef breeding property "Jellore" in High Range.


1183rd General Meeting

"The dynamic brain: modeling sleep, wake, and activity in the working brain"

Professor Peter Robinson, University of Sydney

Wednesday 4 August 2010 at 7 pm

Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, University of Sydney

The brain's activity varies around the clock in response to stimuli, light inputs, and the buildup and clearance of sleep-promoting chemicals - somnogens. Signatures of brain activity have been observed for over a century and are widely used to probe brain function and disorders, often via the electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded by electrodes on the scalp, or through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures a combination of blood volume and deoxygenation. Here, a quantitative physiologically based model of the working brain is described that responds correctly to the day-night cycle, somnogens, caffeine and pharmaceuticals, and generates activity in the cortex consistent with brain imaging measurements. Successful applications to numerous experiments are described, including EEGs, seizures, sleep deprivation and recovery, fatigue, and shift work. Aside from its scientific uses, this working brain model is currently finding clinical and industrial applications to brain function measurement and to prediction and monitoring of alertness.

Peter Robinson received his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Sydney in 1987, then held a postdoc at the University of Colorado at Boulder until 1990. He then returned to Australia, joining the permanent staff of the School of Physics at the University of Sydney in 1994, and obtaining a chair in 2000. He is currently an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow working on topics including sleep, brain dynamics, space physics, plasma theory, and wave dynamics.


1182nd General Meeting

"Pluto and the uber-nerds"

Fred Watson, Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran

Wednesday 7 July 2010 at 7 pm

Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, University of Sydney

When is a planet not a planet? When it's a dwarf-planet, perhaps? So what's the difference? In 2006, astronomy's governing body, the International Astronomical Union, wrestled with this very question at their General Assembly in Prague. Before we knew it, media all around the world had declared that Pluto had been "dumped" from its status as the ninth planet, hinting that it had been unfairly thrown out of the Solar System. And in 2008 things got worse, with Pluto joining the lowly ranks of a new class of objects with the unflattering name of Plutoids. In this entertaining and fully illustrated journey through Pluto's eventful history, Fred Watson debates whether pragmatism and good science should prevail over sentiment and tradition.

Fred Watson says he has spent so many years working in large telescope domes that he has started to look like one. He is Astronomer in Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran, where his main scientific interest is gathering information on very large numbers of stars and galaxies. He is also an adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology, the University of Southern Queensland, and James Cook University. Fred is the author of "Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope", and is a regular broadcaster on ABC radio. His new book "Why is Uranus upside down?" is based on listener questions, and was published in October 2007 and won the 2008 Queensland Premier's Literary Prize for Science Writing. In 2003, Fred received the David Allen Prize for communicating astronomy to the public, and in 2006 was the winner of the Australian Government Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Science. Fred has an asteroid named after him (5691 Fredwatson), but says that if it hits the Earth it won't be his fault ...


1181st General Meeting

"Science for gentlemen - the Royal Society of New South Wales in the nineteenth century"

Peter J. Tyler, Historian for the Royal Society of New South Wales

Wednesday 2 June 2010 at 7 pm

Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, University of Sydney

Scientific activity in New South Wales began when James Cook and Joseph Banks voyaged along the eastern coast in 1770. This was the Age of Reason, when educated men challenged traditional knowledge handed down from antiquity and the Bible. Curiosity about natural history had become a fashionable pursuit when the penal settlement at Sydney Cove was established in 1788. Settlers and colonial officials collected and classified the animal, vegetable and mineral constituents of their unfamiliar environment. Even some of the convicts found a profitable sideline collecting shells, birds, plants, and aboriginal artefacts for sale to visiting ships' captains, who in turn sold them for high prices to wealthy collectors in Britain and the Continent.

In June 1821, towards the end of Lachlan Macquarie's term as Governor, seven men formed the grandly named Philosophical Society of Australasia "with a view to inquiring into the various branches of physical science of this vast continent and its adjacent regions." Although it only survived for a little over a year, this was a predecessor of the present Royal Society of New South Wales.

During the nineteenth century the Royal Society and its three antecedents functioned as an exclusive club for men "of honourable reputations" interested in the natural sciences. Almost without exception the members were pastoralists, merchants, or professionals such as clergymen, lawyers or medical practitioners. They classed themselves as gentlemen, because they were not engaged in physical labour. Only a handful were what we would now call scientists, because separate disciplines were only beginning to emerge, and career opportunities were few.

This does not mean that science was merely a hobby, or a part-time diversion. Members read the latest overseas journals diligently, they collected specimens and published papers - often descriptive rather than analytical - and they engaged in vigorous discourse on many of the contentious issues of the period, including Darwin's theories of species evolution at a time when such views were deeply unpopular in Australia. A few conducted original research in fields such as astronomy, geology and aeronautics.

Members of the Royal Society were part of the colonial conservative establishment. Women were excluded, while rigorous admission procedures ensured that "working men" did not become members. Nevertheless, the Royal Society recognised the need to educate or inform the broader public about the achievements of science, and organised regular gatherings for that purpose. It would be easy to characterise the members as typical class-conscious paternalists of the Victorian era, but there were always a few dissenters who did not fit that model.

In the twentieth century more inclusive attitudes emerged gradually, reflecting the changes in the wider community. Today it is difficult to discern any remnants of the earlier caste system. A question we might ponder is - has the influence and public profile of the Royal Society diminished at the same time?

Peter J. Tyler is the Historian for the Royal Society of New South Wales. In 2008-2009 he was the inaugural Merewether Research Scholar at the Mitchell Library. Peter has a BA degree in geography and a Master's degree in history from the University of New England. His PhD thesis from that institution examined the role of the Board of Health in public health administration in NSW from 1881-1973. He also holds a Graduate Diploma in Adult Education from UTS. Previously he worked in management positions in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors, including fifteen years as Secretary and chief executive of the Workers' Educational Association in Sydney. His published books range over such diverse fields as health care, the building industry, and the public service. Peter Tyler has been President of the NSW Branch of the Australian and New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine, and of the Professional Historians Association (NSW).

Report on the General Meeting

by Donald Hector

The middle of the 19th century was a time of great change in NSW. Responsible government was introduced in 1856 and full manhood suffrage followed two years later. Queensland separated from NSW a year after that. And just 10 years after the introduction of responsible government, Queen Victoria granted Royal Assent to the title of The Royal Society of New South Wales. However, as Dr Peter Tyler, the Society's Historian, explained in his lecture at the 1181st ordinary general meeting on 2 June 2010, The Royal Society of NSW traces its origins back to 1821 when The Philosophical Society of Australasia was formed. There were several early attempts to form such societies with mixed success but this should not understate the commitment of a group of progressives who wanted to see the natural history, agriculture, and culture of the nascent colony flourish.

The Philosophical Society of Australasia was established under patronage of the Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane and he also became its first President. The founding members included Major Goulburn (the Colonial Secretary) and Edward Wollstonecraft a wealthy merchant and landowner at North Sydney. The purpose was to study the physical sciences and the mineralogy of NSW (which then, of course, included what is now Queensland and Victoria). The early Society only lasted a year or so but there were other attempts to stimulate more intellectual activities in the colony in the first part of the 19th century. The first subscription library was started by Wollstonecraft in 1826 and between 1820 and 1850 other societies began, such as the Agricultural Society (which lapsed for some years and then was re-established in the 1850s), The Australian Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Science, Commerce, and Agriculture (more commonly referred to as the Australian Philosophical Society) but, like the early Philosophical Society, these early groups generally did not thrive.

But by the 1860s, with Sydney having been formally declared a city (in 1842), NSW having been granted responsible government, and the buoyant economic growth of the period created an environment where interest in science, art, and literature blossomed. The University of Sydney was founded in 1854 and the time was right for a successful society to be established.

Just six years after the granting of Queen Victoria's Royal Assent there were 122 members of the Society across a range of occupations - pastoralists, businessman, scientists, artists, lawyers, and the clergy - and by the 1890s there were nearly 500 members. In the latter half of the 19th century a number of eminent scientists (Prof John Smith (physics and medicine), Prof Archibald Liversidge (geology and chemistry), Sir Thomas Anderson Stuart (physiology) were but a few). The Society's transactions were published in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal (which continues today) and attracted publications from such eminent scientists and engineers as Lawrence Hargrave.

The first 80 years of the Society were colourful, strongly influenced by the personalities of the time when NSW was finding its feet as a society. Dr Tyler's work was made possible through his appointment as the inaugural Merewether Scholar of the State Library of NSW.


1180th General Meeting

"The weird world of nanoscale gold"

Mike Cortie, Director of the Institute for Nanoscale Technology, University of Technology, Sydney

Wednesday 5 May 2010 at 7 pm

Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, University of Sydney

The field of `nanotechnology' has captured the imaginations of many. There are many new journals dedicated to the subject and the entertainment media have featured it in several recent movies and books. But what is `nanotechnology', and is it actually a new thing? Some people have described much of current nanotechnology as just old things in new clothes. I will show that while the study and exploitation of matter at the nanoscale is old news, there really is something quite startlingly different about the new field of `nanotechnology'. Real nanotechnology is the most reductionist form of science and technology imaginable. In the real thing, the basic paradigm is to define a desired technological functionality, and then to work backwards atom by atom to design a system to achieve that effect.

Some materials, such as silicon, carbon, DNA, titanium dioxide and gold have become very prominent within the nanotech arena. This has not been the result of some arbitrary choices, rather these particular materials offer uniquely attractive engineering properties that specifically commend their selection for nanoscale systems and devices. Gold is particularly interesting to myself and my colleagues, and much of our research targets or uses this element. The reason gold is popular in nanoscale research and technology is that it offers an unrivalled combination of material properties for applications requiring a conductor. But what can you do with it? In my talk I will show first, how things become a bit weird with gold as the size scale is shrunk to nano-dimensions, and then I will describe some of the many useful devices that can be fabricated by exploiting these properties. Some of the interesting existing and prospective applications for gold at the nanoscale include bio-diagnostics, biosensors, solar filters, optical filters, colorants and pigments, single electron devices, new kinds of digital memory, and plasmonic circuitry. But it is a fast-moving field and who knows what new ideas will pop up in the next couple of years.

Mike Cortie is the Director of the Institute for Nanoscale Technology at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), in Australia. He was born and educated in South Africa. He has a BSc(Eng) degree in Physical Metallurgy, a Masters degree earned from research on the corrosion of zirconium and a PhD degree, which was focused on metal fatigue and awarded in 1987. After a stint at South Africa's Atomic Energy Corporation and at Pylon Engineering, a gear-cutting works, Mike joined Mintek, a minerals and metals research organisation. Mike headed the Physical Metallurgy Division of Mintek between 1997 and 2002. The Division consults widely to South African and international industry and now generates the major portion of its funds from foreign contract research. He relocated to Australia and joined UTS in July 2

Mike's current research interest is nanotechnology, and in particular the applications of precious metals in nanotechnology. Previous research activities included research on ferritic and nickel-substituted stainless steels, on intermetallic compounds with the C1 (CF12) and B2/L21 crystal structures, on X-ray diffraction and crystallographic texture of bcc and fcc alloys, on cellular automata and the simulation of metal solidification, cracking and solid state transformations, on explosive interactions between molten metal and water, on displacive transformations in Pt-containing alloys and compounds, on the phase relationships in the Al-Au-Cu ternary system, and on the crystal structures of the martensite phase formed by displacive phase transformation in the b Au-Al-Cu shape memory alloy. He has also been active outside the materials arena, and has made contributions to the mathematical modelling and graphics rendering of mollusc shells, and the science education of children.


2010 Sydney Lecture Series

17th February

​The Four Societies Lecture. Hosted by Australian Nuclear Association, Nuclear Panel of Engineers Australia, Australian Institute of Energy and The Royal Society of NSW

1178th Ordinary General Meeting

An Industry Update on Global Nuclear Power and the Opportunities for Australia

Dr Selena Ng, Areva NC, Australia

Venue: Engineers Australia Lecture Theatre, 8 Thomas St, Chatswood

Time: 5.30pm for 6.00pm
12th March

​1179th Ordinary General Meeting & 143rd AGM with the Anniversary Address

Annual Dinner and Presentation of Awards for 2009

John Hardie, President of the Royal Society of NSW 2007-2010
7th April

Science and Scientists in the Modern World

Professor Jill Trewhella, University of Sydney
5th May

1180th Ordinary General Meeting

The Weird World of Nanoscale Gold

A/Professor Mike Cortie​
2nd June

​1181st Ordinary General Meeting

Science for Gentlemen - The Royal Society of NSW in the Nineteenth Century

Dr Peter Tyler, Historian for the RSNSW
7th July

​1182nd Ordinary General Meeting

Pluto and the Ueber-nerds

Dr Fred Watson, Anglo Australian Observatory
4th August

​1183rd Ordinary General Meeting

The Dynamic Brain: Modelling Sleep, Wake, and Activity in the Working Brain

Professor Peter Robinson, University of Sydney
1st September

​1184th Ordinary General Meeting

Long-term Changes in Solar Activity - Including the Current "Grand Minimum"

Dr Ken McCracken, Senior Research Associate, University of Maryland
6th October

​1185th Ordinary General Meeting

Is the Climate Right for Nuclear Power?

Dr Ziggy Switkowski, ANSTO
3rd November

​1186th Ordinary General Meeting

Powering the US Grid from Solar and Wind

Dr David Mills, Chief Scientific Officer and Founder of Ausra, Inc.
26th November

1187th Ordinary General Meeting

2010 Liversidge Lecture in Chemistry

Professor John White CMG FAA FRS, Australian National University​

​Studentship recipients

1176th Ordinary General Meeting

"The real significance of hobbits: hominid biogeography in South East Asia"

Professor Michael J. Morwood, Professor in Archaeology, School of Earth and Environmental Studies, University of Wollongong

Wednesday 4 November 2009 at 7 pm

Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, University of Sydney

In 2004 Professor Mike Morwood led the team that found the skeleton of a previously undiscovered human species on the island of Flores. The 'hobbit' skeleton was of a much smaller stature than present-day humans, being that of an adult who was only one metre in height. Evidence suggests that these 'hobbits' may have lived from 95,000 to 13,000 years ago and were probably descendants of the Homo erectus population that had evolved in isolation on Flores. It is believed that the 'hobbit' may have still been in existence when the 16th century Dutch traders arrived at the island. This discovery has raised questions about the nature of human of evolution.

The discovery of an endemic species of human on Flores was unexpected, but no more so than finding evidence of Homins on the islands from 880,000 years ago. This lecture will explain why the 2004 discovery was not wholly unexpected with reference to the faunal biogeography of South East Asia. It will conclude with some of the implications for early hominin and modern human dispersal mechanisms, and for the future archaeological research in the region.

The speaker's presentation can be found here: Mike Morwood's Talk (5 MB PDF).

Professor Michael Morwood has carried out extensive research in New Zealand and throughout Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory, both as an academic researcher and as a public archaeologist. He is particularly interested in ethnohistory, material culture studies and the social-ceremonial role of art in Aboriginal Culture.

In 2007, Professor Morwood and Penny Van Oosterzee won the John Mulvaney Book Award for the publication of "The Discovery of the Hobbit: The Scientific Breakthrough that Changed the Face of Human History" documenting his work on the Indonesian island of Flores. In addition to his work in Indonesia, he is an expert in Australian Aboriginal rock art and the author of "Visions from the Past: The Archaeology of Australian Aboriginal Art".

Royal Society Events

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

In Sydney, these include Ordinary General Meetings (OGMs) held normally at 6.00 for 6.30 pm on the first Wednesday of the month (there is no meeting in January), in the Gallery Room at the State Library of NSW. At the OGMs, society business is conducted, new Fellows and Members are inducted, and reports from Council are given.  This is followed by a public lecture presented by an eminent expert and an optional dinner.  Drinks are served before the meeting.  There is a small charge to attend the meeting and lecture, and to cover refreshments.  The dinner is a separate charge, and must be booked in advance.  All OGMs are open to members of the public.

The first OGM of  the year, held in February, has speakers drawn from the winners of the Royal Society Scholarships from the previous year, while the December OGM hears from the winner of the Jak Kelly award, before an informal Christmas party.  The April or May event is our black-tie Annual Dinner and Distinguished Fellow lecture.

Other events are held in collaboration with other groups, including:

  • The Four Societies lecture — with the Australian Institute of Energy, the Nuclear Panel of Engineers Australia (Sydney Division), and the Australian Nuclear Association
  • The Forum — the Australian Academy of Science, with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia
  • The Dirac lecture — with UNSW Sydney and the Australian Institute of Physics
  • The Liversidge Medal lecture — with the Royal Australian Chemical Institute

We use cookies on our website. Some of them are essential for the operation of the site, while others help us to improve this site and the user experience (tracking cookies). You can decide for yourself whether you want to allow cookies or not. Please note that if you reject them, you may not be able to use all the functionalities of the site.