Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events
SEP
06

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.

OCT
04

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.

JUN
03

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.

NOV
08

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".

MAY
06

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.

FEB
07

1207th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Presentations by Royal Society of NSW scholarship winners 2013

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

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

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

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


MAR
07

1208th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

"The evolution of galaxies" - Dr Ray Norris

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

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

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

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

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

APR
04

1209th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Inaugural Fellows Lecture - Professor Michael Archer AM

"An evolutionary history of Australia"

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

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

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

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

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

MAY
02

1210th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

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

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

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

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

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

JUN
07

Royal Society of NSW Forum 2013

Thursday, 6 June 2013

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

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



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

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

JUL
04

1212th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday 3 July 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUG
08

1213th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUG
14

The Poggendorf Lecture 2013

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEP
05

1214th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

"Open science" - Dr Matthew Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

OCT
03

1215th Ordinary General Meeting

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

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

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

The purpose of the Curiosity mission is to understand the geological and biological context to determine whether life may have existed or, indeed, still exist on Mars. Mars is somewhat smaller than the Earth with the surface area of Mars being about the same as the exposed surface area of the Earth's continents. Until as recently as 60 years ago, up it was thought that advanced life may have once existed on Mars and could have been responsible for the canals and other geological phenomena that have been observed through telescopes. It is now thought that the most advanced form of life to be possible on Mars would be single cell organisms, probably similar to those that existed on earth in the early stages of life. To put this in perspective life first appeared on earth about 3,500 million years ago and, until about 500 million years ago, consisted entirely of single cell organisms. Nearly all of the diversity of life on earth is microscopic, so it makes sense to look for this as the first signs of life in other places in the universe.

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

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

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

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

NOV
03

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.

OCT
06

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.

SEP
08

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.

FEB
20

Joint meeting with the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences

Thursday, 19 February 2014

"Searching for clues: Unmasking art fraud and fraudsters" - Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett

At the first joint meeting of the Society and the Australian Academy of Forensics Sciences, Professor Robyn Sloggitt explain the approach taken by forensics scientists in investigating prosecuting cultural heritage offences. The difficulty that faces authorities is determining whether or not cultural records are true and verifiable. Forensic examination used in these situations follows the Locard principle (named after Edmond Locard the pioneering French forensics scientist) that "every contact leaves a trace".

In order to determine the provenance of works of art, the forensics it seeks to establish how the object was made, what it is made of, when it was made and where it was made. But it is not attempt to determine who made it. An important foundation of provenance is establishing a body of work that can be used as a reference. Here, art and science converge. For example, in order to determine whether or not a painting might have been painted by Rembrandt, it is known that Rembrandt lived from 1608 to 1669, that certain types of pigments but not others were available in that era, canvas and other materials need to be consistent and so on. But none of these, on their own although necessary, can be sufficient to establish authenticity. As philosopher, Karl Popper put it testing cannot establish authenticity, rather it can falsify it.

When forensics science is used to determination whether there has been fraud take place a number of questions have to be answered: was the financial benefit question? was there deliberate deception? was a work that is non-authentic passed off as being authentic? Professor Sloggitt referred to a notable case in which the Australian painter and art copyist, William Blundell, painted works in the style of a number of well-known Australian artists. He referred to these works as "innuendos", stating that they were intended be used for decorative purposes only were not passed off as originals typically being sold for only a few hundred dollars and us, there was no intention to defraud.

When authentication is required, the forensics approach is accommodation of scientific analysis, gathering historical facts, attempting to verify the provenance, weighing up evidence against the item being authentic these are considered together in order to reach a determination that in the balance of probabilities as to whether or not the item is indeed authentic. This depends on the availability of good databases and a logical development of the case, with corroborative evidence and expert knowledge and opinion. The forensics process can be considered to be in two parts: investigation of primary sources; and secondary sources. Primary sources are either invasive or non-invasive, with invasive techniques including methods such as laboratory-based analysis of materials. Non-invasive methods such as spectroscopy, x-ray diffraction, electron might be, Rahman and Fourier infrared analysis in recent decades have become important tools.

Typically, the first steps are to examine documents regarding the artefact and then investigate materials, such as the frame, paints, brushstrokes, and finishing techniques. Contaminants can also be useful such as pollen, dirt, fingerprints, as are ageing characteristics and the effect of the environment. Later changes can also be important. Secondary sources are then investigated and included observations such as style and technique but these are more difficult to deal with as they are subjective and often expert opinion is divided.

Professor Sloggitt gave some insight into a number of notorious fraud cases, one being Wolfgang Beltracchi who forged over 200 works that were passed off as being pre-World War II works by famous European artists such as Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk and Fernand Lédger. The amount involved was $48 million over 15 years and resulted in a gaol term of six years, considered to be a rather light sentence. In Europe, art fraud cases are relatively common but in Australia are quite rare. One reason for this that there is no art fraud squad in Australia, so criminal prosecutions are rare because is no professional expertise in identifying and tracking down criminal art fraud cases and taking them to prosecution.

There was an interesting discussion after the talk that continued over the first joint dinner enjoyed by both the Society and the Academy members.

FEB
28

Four Societies Lecture 2014

Thursday, 27 February 2014

"Questions of power in NSW"

Professor Mary O'Kane, NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Society Events

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

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

Since April 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face meetings have been replaced by virtual meetings, conducted as Zoom webinars, allowing the events program to continue uninterrupted.  It is hoped that face-to-face meetings can be resumed in the latter half of 2021. 

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

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

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

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