Sydney meetings - 2015 - The Royal Society of NSW - Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

1238th OGM, public lecture and Christmas party

"From quantum devices to quantum machines"

colless  James Colless, University of Sydney

  Winner of the RSNSW Jak Kelly Scholarship
  Award for 2015

Date: 2 December 2015

Venue: University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

The Jak Kelly Award was created in honour of Professor Jak Kelly, who was Professor of Physics and The University of Sydney and UNSW and also President of the Royal Society of NSW; Its purpose is to encourage excellence in postgraduate research in Physics. It is supported by the Royal Society of NSW and the Australian Institute of Physics, NSW Branch. The winner is selected from a short list of candidates who made presentations at a recent meeting of the Australian Institute of Physics, NSW Branch.

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

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

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

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

1237th OGM and public lecture

"Big history"

dchristian  Professor David Christian

  Director, The Big History Institute
  Macquarie University

Date: Wednesday 4 November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

1236th OGM and public lecture

"The Revolution in Radio Astronomy"

Sadler  Professor Elaine Sadler

  University of Sydney

Date: Wednesday 7 October 2015

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

Radio astronomy is currently entering a 'golden age', when new telescopes of unprecedented sensitivity will allow us to explore the Universe in ways that have never been possible before. Australia is at the forefront of these developments, as one of the two countries chosen to host the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope. I will show some of the first science results from two new Australian 'SKA precursor' radio telescopes which have recently started operations in a remote area of Western Australia, and describe some of the novel technologies which make these telescopes so powerful. I'll also discuss how the remoteness of the Western Australian site makes it possible for us to search for the faint signature of hydrogen gas in distant galaxies.

Elaine Sadler is Professor of Astrophysics in the School of Physics at The University of Sydney, and Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).

Professor Sadler started her career with an undergraduate physics degree at the University of Queensland, followed by a PhD in astronomy at the Australian National University. She held postdoctoral fellowships in Germany and the United States before returning to Australia to take up research positions at the Anglo-Australian Observatory and the University of Sydney.

Elaine's main research interest is galaxy evolution - using large observational data sets to study how galaxies form and change on timescales of billions of years. Much of her research involves the analysis of data from large-area optical and radio surveys of the sky. She has designed and undertaken several major astronomical surveys over the years, and currently leads the ASKAP-FLASH project. This project is using the new Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope in Western Australia to learn more about the amount and distribution of neutral hydrogen gas in very distant galaxies.She was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2010. She has served as President of Division VIII (Galaxies and the Universe) of the International Astronomical Union (2009-2012) and Chair of the National Committee for Astronomy (2010-2012). As CAASTRO Director, she overseas a 140-strong team of scientists and research students across seven Australian university nodes and 11 partner institutions here and overseas.


Four Academies Forum 2015

"The future of work"

Royal Society of NSW and Four Academies Forum


His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (ret'd), Vice Regal Patron of the RSNSW

Date: Tuesday 15 September 2015

Venue: Government House, Sydney

The Royal Society of NSW and Four Academies Forum was the inaugural collaborative event between the Society and the NSW-chapters of the four national Academies. The Forum was hosted by the vice-regal patron of the Society, His Excellency The Hon General David Hurley at Government House on Tuesday, 15 September 2015.

The speakers at the forum were Professor Mary O'Kane, Chief Scientist and Engineer of NSW who provided framing comments about the technological challenges that the working environment would face over the next 20 years or so and the need for NSW and the nation to embrace innovation and change and the introduction of new business models. Professor Andrew Holmes of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor John Fitzgerald, President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and Dr Alan Finkel, President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering gave valuable insights from their various perspectives, and a panel discussion responding to these issues was led by Professor Glenn Withers, President-elect of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. In addition, there were five other speakers drawn from senior Fellows of the four Academies. They were Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, Professor Hugh Durrant Whyte, Professor Amarjit Kaur, Professor Bettina Cass, and Professor Julianne Schultz. The discussion panel, led by Professor Withers, consisted of Dr Eric Knight, Professor Vera Mackie, Mr Anthony Roediger and Mr Jeremy Webster.


Professor Alan Finkel

Issues covered were far-reaching: "techno-optimism" – humanity has a good track record for solving problems by the application of technology. We should not forget the enormous challenges of the changing environment that will take place over the next couple of decades but we should also not forget the capacity of humans to adapt. One of the best ways that this adaptability presents itself is through innovation of entrepreneurship and resort examples of development of start-up technologies that have become very successful businesses. Yet many of the challenges that face the workforce will not be technological in their nature, even though they may have their origins there. The role of social policy, particularly around carers as the population ages and families with both parents participating in the workforce become the norm. Indeed, despite the fact we largely focus on the changes that face the workforce that originate in technology, many of the drivers are not technological in their nature – globalisation, climate change, resource conflicts, population movements and cultural change will be major influences in the coming decades. Although we tend to think of technological change as the driver of change, this is perhaps the wrong way to look at it – it suggests that we have no option. In fact, whether or not we choose to adopt particular technologies is a matter of policy and choice.

Education emerged as a major theme. A society cannot progress unless it educates its people. The challenge is to ensure that education is well directed and that we educate our people the right fields. We heard about the extraordinary advances in computing technology and how this would change the nature of work over the next 20 years – perhaps 40% of today's jobs will disappear. But this need not be a looming social disaster because headlines about such projections tend to overlook the rate of job creation. If job creation is greater than job destruction, the technology will end up providing a net benefit. But such disruption itself causes problems and the workforce and the communities in which they work need to be resilient and to be able to embrace change. Historically, Australia has done well in this, as evidenced in places like Newcastle and Wollongong, but there are always winners and losers – we need to be sure that communities in individuals are not destroyed in the process. It is also important that as a nation, we do not consider these issues in isolation. Workforces in Asia, for example, have very high migrant workforces – the movement of people and the cultural and social issues and challenges that these introduce will be an important factor as we plan for the future.

The Governor summed up, emphasizing that our future might be defined in terms of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Over the next 20 or 30 years, the rate of change will be great and the challenge for the nation is how we engage with these issues. Technology should not be the driver – it should be the tool to help us define what we want to be as a nation.

The Society thanks the speakers and the panellists for their extremely rich and diverse insights and, in particular, thanks the organising committee of the Forum, Dr Donald Hector, Dr David Cook, Professor Ian Dawes, Professor Max Crossley, Professor John Gascoigne, Professor Heather Goodall, Dr Des Griffin, Mr John Hardie, Dr Richard Sheldrake and Professor Ian Wilkinson for putting together such a stimulating programme. We also thank The University of Sydney Business School for their sponsorship of the event

1235th OGM and open lecture

"Trait-based ecology"

westoby  Professor Mark Westoby

  Department of Biological Sciences
  Macquarie University

  NSW Scientist of the Year 2014

Date: 2 September 2015

Venue: Union University and Schools Club, 25 Bent St Sydney 

Ecological strategies summarize the variety of styles that different plant species have adopted to sustain their populations in different settings. Beginning in the mid-90s, ecological strategies began to be described on the basis of measurable species traits. This made worldwide comparisons possible. Over the past 20 years collaborative international networks have accumulated large quantitative databases and very much clarified the global picture. More recently, the relationship of traits to plant growth rates has begun to be elucidated. The long-standing problem of how a large number of species are able to coexist at a site is being revisited on the basis of measurable traits.

Mark Westoby has degrees and postdoc experience at University of Edinburgh, Utah State University and Cornell University. He came to Macquarie University as a raw lecturer in 1975. Together with his late wife Barbara Rice he developed a comparative ecology lab that has graduated 50 PhDs and postdocs into continuing research careers. He developed and taught for 10 years a national 1--day postgrad course in current ecology and evolution. Currently his lab is supported by a Laureate Fellowship from ARC. He is chair of the Academy's National Committee on Ecology, Evolution and Conservation, and leader of the Genes to Geoscience Research Centre at Macquarie University.

Dirac Lecture 2015

"Quantum entanglement and superconductivity"

sachdev  Professor Subir Sachdev

  Professor of Physics, Harvard University

Held in conjunction with UNSW and the Australian Institute of Physics

Date: Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Venue: John B Reid Theatre, AGSM Building, UNSW

Einstein called it "spooky action at a distance". Entanglement is a counter-intuitive feature of quantum theory by which two particles are deeply correlated even when separated by vast distances, such that a measurement of one particle instantaneously determines the state of the other. Remarkably, quantum entanglement can also happen en masse, determining the macroscopic properties of many electrons in certain crystals. Such states of matter can exhibit superconductivity, the ability to conduct electricity without measurable resistance, at much higher temperatures than was previously possible.

Professor Sachdev also described newly emerging connections between the theory of macroscopic quantum entanglement and Hawking's theory of black holes.

Science Week 2015 lunchtime talk 4

"The wonders of the Hubble Space Telescope"

Picture1  Professor Michael Burton

  School of Physics, UNSW

Date: 21 August 2015

Venue: The University of Sydney Business School CBD Campus, Level 17, 133 Castlereagh St., Sydney

25 years ago, on 24 April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into Earth orbit. Aside, perhaps, from Galileo’s original telescope of 1609, Hubble has done more than any other telescope to transform our view of the cosmos, certainly from the perspective of the general public. Its contributions to improved understanding of the Universe range from new knowledge of our own Solar System, across our Galaxy and the stars, gas and dust within it, to the galaxies at large and their part in the evolution of the Universe itself. The science case crafted to inspire and then drive the Hubble mission was, of course, cogent. But in fact much of the science that Hubble then performed wasn’t even envisaged when the telescope was launched, testament to the vision that led to the building of a multi-capability observatory rather than one devoted to a single science mission. In particular, the ability to be able to regularly upgrade its instrument suite as the technology for photon detection developed has meant that Hubble has continued to both amaze and do new science a quarter of a century on from its launch.NASA has released a wonderful slide set - 25 years of the Hubble Space Telescope - to mark this notable anniversary, providing a glimpse of many of its science highlights, images that have themselves become iconic over the intervening years. This talk will present this slide set, interspersed with the presenters personal interpretation on their role and significance in the scientific endeavour that is modern astronomy. It will both provide a spectacular picture show of the cosmos, as well as, hopefully, explaining some of the scientific background behind Hubble’s exploration of it.

Michael Burton is an astronomer in the School of Physics at UNSW. His postdoctoral career included a stint with NASA in the late 80’s, in the interregnum between the Challenger disaster of ‘86 and the launch of the Hubble in ‘90. He has been fortunate to have played a small role in some of the ventures undertaken with Hubble, and has had the opportunity to pursue several parallel investigations with ground based telescopes inspired by discoveries made by Hubble, in wavebands that Hubble cannot access; He is also the Editor of the Royal Society's Journal - the second oldest scientific publication in the southern hemisphere.

Science Week 2015 lunchtime talk 3

“Big science and big history: From the big bang to us”

David Christian  Professor David Christian

  Director of Big History Institute
  Macquarie University

Date: 20 August 2015, 12.00 to 1pm

Venue: The University of Sydney Business School, CBD Campus, Level 17, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney

Big History examines our past, explains our present, and imagines our future. It's a story about us. An idea that arose from a desire to go beyond specialized and self-contained fields of study to grasp history as a whole. This growing, multi-disciplinary approach is focused on high school students, yet designed for anyone seeking answers to the big questions about the history of our Universe.

The Big History Project is a joint effort between teachers, scholars, scientists, and their supporters to bring a multi-disciplinary approach to knowledge to lifelong learners around the world. David Christian is by training a historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, but since the 1980s he has become interested in World History on very large scales or Big History. In 1989, he began teaching courses on 'Big History', surveying the past on the largest possible scales, including those of biology and astronomy; and in 2004, he published the first text on ‘Big History; He was founding President of the newly formed International Big History Association, and a co-founder with Bill Gates, of the Big History Project, a project that is building a free on-line high school syllabus in big history released in 2013. David Christian has given numerous talks and lectures on aspects of Russian, Inner Eurasian and world and Big History. In March 2011, he gave a talk on “13.7 billion years of history in 18 minutes” at the TED conference in Long Beach and he has given talks at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Big History. He also appears regularly in the media talking about Big History.

Science Week 2015 lunchtime talk 2

“Aboriginal astronomy and the clash of cultures”

Ragbir  Dr Ragbir Bhathal

Date/time: 18 August 2015, 12.30 to 1.30pm

Venue: The University of Sydney Business School CBD Campus, Level 17, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney

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

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

Science Week 2015 lunchtime talk 1

Mjacobson  Professor Michael Jacobson

  Professor of Education
  University of Sydney

Time: 12.30 to 13.30pm, 14 August 2015

Venue: The University of Sydney Business School CBD Campus, Level 17, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney

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

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

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

1233rd OGM and public lecture

"Science in literature"

JLey  Dr James Ley

  Editor, Sydney Review of Books

Date: Wednesday 1 July 2015

Venue: Union University and Schools Club, 25 Bent St., Sydney CBD

Literature and science have historically been seen as competing and sometimes opposed disciplines, confined to their own discrete modes of comprehension. James Ley will consider some of the ways in which contemporary literature has sought to embrace and naturalise scientific understanding, while grappling with the moral implications of advances in scientific knowledge. It will argue that the language of literature has the potential to humanise complex scientific views and thus render them comprehensible, and in doing so play a role in disseminating scientific truths.

James Ley is the Editor of the Sydney Review of Books and the author of The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood (2014). In 2014, he was awarded the Geraldine Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year. According to the judges’ report, “He operates at the point where scholarly precision and essayistic liberty intersect. ... In a Ley review, you may be sure that an independent opinion informed by wide reading and sharp thinking is being stated.” See

1232nd OGM and public lecture

“The Science of Spontaneity: Fred Astaire as Consummate Craftsman”

kriley  Dr Kathleen Riley

Date: Wednesday 3 June 2015

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

This talk focused on the science behind Fred Astaire's apparent effortlessness, his ability to make something that was technically complex and endlessly rehearsed look easy and spontaneous. The lighter-than-air grace, the pluperfect precision and the sheer joyfulness of his dancing were the products of a dogged perfectionism, an astonishing musicianship and an imagination at once whimsical and methodical. Using nuimerous film clips Dr Riley illustrated how, in the more technical aspects of his artistry, Astaire was part of an ancient tradition (that of Roman pantomime) and, at the same time, revolutionary. The first half of the talk concentrated on Astaire the eloquent dance stylist and specifically, the perfect commensurability of all parts of his body to one another and to the whole, and his interpretive games with the shape and logic of music, his inventive use of the off-beat and experiments with broken rhythm, and his syncopated language, which impressed Bertolt Brecht as the sound of the modern environment. The second half considered Astaire the cinematic craftsman, his instinctive understanding of how best to present dance on film, his pioneering use of special effects (e.g. slow motion and split screens), and his role in improving sound synchronization.

Dr Kathleen Riley is a former British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford and now a freelance writer, theatre historian and critic. She is the author of Nigel Hawthorne on Stage (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004); The Reception and Performance of Euripides: Reasoning Madness(Oxford University Press, 2008); and The Astaires: Fred and Adele&nbsp (Oxford University Press, US, 2012). The last was included in the Wall Street Journal's Best Non-Fiction for 2012 and described by legendary singer Tony Bennett as ‘a magnificent book about the trials and tribulations of show business'. In 2008, she convened at Oriel College, Oxford the first international conference on the art and legacy of Fred Astaire. She was Script Consultant on the critically acclaimed stage production My Perfect Mind, which had its London premiere at the Young Vic in 2013. Her current projects include a monograph on the ancient Greek concept of Nostos (homecoming) and an edited volume of essays on Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity. She continues to have an association with the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD) in Oxford.

Annual black-tie dinner 2015

bashir  Guest of Honour Dame Marie Bashir

  Vice Regal Patron of the Society
  and Governor of NSW

Date: Tuesday 5 May 2015

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

Dame Marie Bashir was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Royal Society and gave the Distinguished Fellows Address.  She reflected on the orgins of the society and its contributions

1231st OGM, AGM and public lecture

"Is the Brain the Right Size?"

Paxanos and Hibbert  Scientia Professor George Paxinos AO

  School of Medical Sciences, UNSW

Date: 1 April 2015

Venue: Union University and Schools Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

1230th OGM and public lecture

"Super-resolution microscopy: understanding how T-cells make decisions"

Kraus  Scientia Professor Katharina Gaus

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

Date: Wednesday 4 March 2015

Venue: Union University and Schools Club, 25 Bent St. Sydney CBD

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Societies lecture 2015

"Latest developments in small modular reactors"

adi patterson ANSTODr Adrian (Adi) Paterson

Chief Executive Officer,
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

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

Date: Monday 16 February 2015

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

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

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

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

1229th Ordinary General Meeting - Scholarship presentations

Royal Society of NSW scholarship winners 2015

Date: February 2015

Venue: Union University and Schools Club, 25 Bent St, Sydney

Melanie Laird

School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney 

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

Ruth Wells

School of Psychology, University of Sydney

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

Stephen Parker

School of Chemistry, University of NSW

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


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