28 August 2012

Eureka Awards celebrate top Aussie science

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A computer program that helps musicians create music, a discovery that the laws of physics can differ across the universe, and Dr Rip's beach safety messages were among the 19 winners this year at Australia’s prestigious Eureka awards.
Eureka Awards

The musical composition of the future? This is a song, as displayed by Nodal, software created by Eureka Award winners from Monash University. Credit: Nodal/Monash University

SYDNEY: A computer program that helps musicians create music, a discovery that the laws of physics can differ across the universe, and Dr Rip’s beach safety messages were among the 19 winners this year at Australia’s prestigious Eureka awards.

The 23rd Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, held at Sydney’s Royal Hall of Industries, Moore Park, had prize money worth $180,000 on offer, and the 2012 winners received their accolades in front of many of Australia’s top thinkers, politicians and celebrities.

“The winners of the 23rd Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are a testament to the imagination and innovation driving Australian science today,” said Frank Howarth, director of the Australian Museum.

The perfect composition

Jon McCormack, Peter McIlawin, Aidan Lane and Alan Dorin from the Centre for Electronic Media Art at Monash University, Victoria, have won the Eureka Prize for Innovation in Computer Science for their software, Nodal, which can depict music graphically.

Nodal was launched on Apple’s App Store in May 2011 and reached the second highest position, being used in music education in schools and universities around the world.

The software allows users to visualise the musical events, such as notes or beats, of any song as a series of nodes on a graph. The nodes are connected by lines that indicate the time between the musical events. Composers create music by drawing on the nodes and lines in a network, and the software is touted for its ability to handle improvisation.

Ultimately, it may do away with the need for sheet music altogether. “A number of people have written to us, saying Nodal has completely changed the way they think about composing music,” McCormack said in a statement from Monash University in 2011. “It’s not often that software can change the way you think about creativity.”

“Nodal demonstrates the wonderful innovation at the intersection of music and computer science in Australia,” said Howarth.

The changing constant of the universe

The Eureka Prize for Scientific Research went to John Webb, Victor Flambaun, Julian King and Julian Berengut from the University of New South Wales and Michael Murphy from the Swinburne University of Technology, for showing that a fundamental constant in physics was not, after all, constant across the universe.

“Beneath the mind-boggling complexity of the cosmos there has always been a solid foundation: confidence that the laws of nature are always and everywhere the same,” says Howarth. “Thanks to the work of Professor Webb and his team, that cherished notion might have to be discarded.”

The constant that the team has called into question is called the ‘fine-structure constant’ and dictates the strength of the electromagnetic force.

Using the large optical and radio telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, the team studied the trace of gas clouds in the early universe, as the light reached Earth, and compared them with the same elements measured in laboratories. They observed very slight but significant differences.

They explain these by using the analogy of a supermarket barcode: the relative positions of the strips in the barcode form a unique identity for each item. Similarly, in distant gas clouds, there are distinct lines caused by various chemical elements. Just like the barcode, the relative positions of these lines can be measured with high precision and the result is amazing: the unique patterns of lines for the same elements in the laboratory measurements today are slightly different from those seen in distant galaxy halos.

Professor Paul Davies has described their work as “nothing short of a tour-de-force”.

Dr Rip teaches beach safety

This year’s Eureka Prize for Promoting the Understanding of Australian Science Research went to coastal geomorphologist Rob Brander, from the University of New South Wales. Brander is better known as Dr Rip.
With YouTube videos in six languages, a Facebook site and the bestselling book Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book: Everything You Need to Know About Surf, Sand and Rips, Brander has focused on teaching beachgoers how to identify rip currents, so that they don’t get caught in one.

THE FULL LIST OF WINNERS OF THE 2012 AUSTRALIAN MUSEUM EUREKA PRIZES:

Eureka Prize for Emerging Leader in Science – Matthew Hill

Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology – Monash Team of Bioactive Paper Diagnostics

Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Australian Science Research – Rob Brander

Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research – Pellegrini Team

Eureka Prize for Leadership in Science – Suzanne Cory

Eureka Prize for Science or Mathematics Teaching – Geoff McNamara

Eureka Prize for Medical Research Translation – David Kaye

Eureka Prize for Outstanding Science in Support of Defence or National Security – Yonggang Zhu

Eureka Prize for Innovation in Computer Science – Jon McCormack, Aidan Lane, Alan Dorin and Peter McIlwain

Eureka Prize for Outstanding Young Researcher – Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat

Eureka Prize for Environmental Research – Dana Cordell and Stuart White

Eureka Prize for Commercialisation of Innovation – Digitalcore

Eureka Prize for Scientific Research – John Webb, Victor Flambaum, Julian King, Julian Berengut and Michael Murphy

Eureka Prize for Outstanding Mentor of Young Researchers – Douglas Hilton

Eureka Prize for Scientific Research that Contributes to Animal Protection – Clive Phillips

Science Eureka Prize – Primary School – Ignatius Fox, Oyster Bay Public School

Science Eureka Prize – Secondary School – Brandon Gifford, Casino High School

Gifford’s winning entry can be seen here:

with the Australian Museum
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