Blog Society 10 December 2019

A sculptor, two horticulturists and a physicist brainstorm ideas: (l. to r.) Mark Swartz, Bjorn Sturmberg, Hayden Druce and Erika Watson.

Laura Fisher

By Bjorn Sturmberg

We generally hear climate change discussed as a technical challenge that will be solved with bigger wind turbines, more electric cars, less steak and fewer flights. The mission is nothing more, and nothing less, than to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent units.

As a physicist, this computes for me, but over the past year, I’ve begun to look at things differently.

I’m part of An artist, a farmer and a scientist walk into a bar, an unusual arts initiative in Australia designed to challenge and change the relationships we have with the land. My project – one of eight – involves working with a sculptor and two horticulturists to explore creative ways of harnessing solar energy on farms.

Things began with a visit to a drought-stricken farm in the shadows of the Blue Mountains escarpment west of Sydney, where the shallowness of the simplistic technical response to climate change took root.

Then, as the project involved me in more conversations with artists and other collaborators, a number of things struck me.

The first was the attentiveness and genuine value placed on the artistic process. You can hear this whenever an artist refers to their "art practice" instead of their "art". This seems to me to be powerfully linked to artists’ comfort in constantly working with a blank page; with a loose scope; with uncertainty.

Farmers too are deeply embedded in a perpetual process of tending to their living, breathing, never static landscapes.

As we rush into our uncertain future – with its changing climate, changing technologies, and changing demographics – the rest of us (especially us science types) would do well to give greater attention to the processes we adopt when we engage with issues.

Appreciating the process keeps us focussed on continually asking good questions and pursuing best possible solutions. It also helps sustain motivation through our multi-year challenges.

The adjustment in perspective is nicely...

Blog Mathematics 03 December 2019

Associate Professor David Harvey demonstrating the old-school method of multiplication which is impractical when multiplying astronomically large numbers together.
Natalie Choi/UNSW

Associate Professor David Harvey from the University of New South Wales has been awarded the 2019 AustMS Medal by the Australian Mathematical Society (AustMS).

Presented during the society’s 63rd annual meeting in Melbourne, the award recognises Harvey’s work in the fields of algorithmic number theory and computer algebra.

His achievements include the development of highly efficient algorithms that play a central role in number theory and cryptography and, with Dutch mathematician Joris van de Hoeven, the discovery of the fastest known method for multiplying large numbers together.

His work on integer multiplication settled a notorious conjecture that had remained unsolved for nearly 50 years.

Harvey says he is humbled to receive the honour. “Many of the past recipients of this medal are giants of Australian mathematics who I admire greatly.”

The 2019 Award for Teaching Excellence (Early Career) was presented to Belinda Spratt, a Mathematical Science Lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, for her commitment to transforming student engagement and perception of mathematics.

“This award sends a very important signal about the value and impact of teaching and its role in developing and inspiring new talent,” she says.

The 2019 Gavin Brown Prize for outstanding article, monograph or book was presented to University of Queensland researchers Dr Zdravko Botev and Professors Joseph Grotowski and Dirk Kroese for their paper “Kernel Density Estimation Via Diffusion”, published in the journal Annals of Statistics.

Blog Biology 29 November 2019

Andreas Strasser and David Vaux are recognised for their work identifying cell death triggers. 


David Vaux and Andreas Strasser from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research have been awarded the biennial CSL Florey Medal for their work identifying cell death triggers and using them to fight cancer.

The award, which is presented by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS), recognises significant lifetime achievements in biomedical science and human health advancement.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vaux and Strasser discovered the molecular processes that cause billions of our cells to die every day, showing that some cancer cells can evade this process of programmed cell death and thus "fail to die".

They found that a gene called Bcl-2 keeps cancer cells alive and increases their resistance to chemotherapy. This led to the development of a potent new inhibitor of Bcl-2 that is now used to treat leukaemia around the world.

“I’m proud to share this honour with Andreas,” Vaux says. “Bcl-2 was the spark that ignited a whole new field that has given new insights not only into the origins of cancer but also, as first shown by Andreas, autoimmune disease. But cell death research has only just begun.”

Strasser agrees. “Although our research into cell death and cancer has been under way for decades, it remains for me a vital and exciting field,” he says.

“There still remains much to be discovered and there is a real opportunity to translate the understanding of programmed cell death into improved therapies for diverse cancers.”

Blog Society 22 November 2019

SCINEMA International Science Film Festival has officially opened entries for 2020, and this year there’s a host of new award categories.

New awards include Best Experimental/Animation, Best Short Film, Best Online Format, a Social Impact award and SCINEMA Junior for filmmakers 17 years and younger.

“We’re really excited to launch a category that celebrates the work of young filmmakers who have a curiosity for science,” says Katherine Roberts from The Royal Institution of Australia, the Adelaide-based publisher of SCINEMA.

There’s also a new award for the best Indigenous or First Nations film that aims to advocate and celebrate the scientific endeavours, stories, and voices of Indigenous people.

“SCINEMA is all about promoting the public understanding of science. Throughout history, Indigenous Peoples have substantially contributed to science and technology - SCINEMA is a platform to tell these stories”, says Roberts.

Best Film/Documentary, Best Short Film, Best Experimental/Animation and Award for Scientific Merit will also return for 2020.

Organisers are now inviting entries from amateur, professional and student filmmakers.

If you have produced a film, television series, documentary, online video, short film, educational content or animation that has a science theme, submissions are now open via FilmFreeway. Entries close 12 January 2020.

SCINEMA gives filmmakers the opportunity to have their films seen by a large audience – this year the festival attracted over 100,000 science and film fans - category winners will also take home an Instagram worthy trophy.

Don’t miss out, submit your film now! More information on the festival can be found here.

SCINEMA International Science Film Festival is presented by Australia’s Science Channel and supported by BBC Earth.

Blog Society 21 November 2019

Dr Karl is the first Australian to take home the prestigious prize.
The University of Sydney.

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki – or simply Dr Karl as he is best known – has become the first Australian to win the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularisation of Science.

He joins the ranks of such scientific luminaries as Margaret Mead, David Attenborough, Arthur C Clarke, Bertrand Russell, David Suzuki, and inaugural winner Louis de Broglie, one of the founders of quantum theory.

Presented during the World Science Forum in Budapest, the award recognises Dr Karl’s knowledge, his gift for communication and his enthusiasm and curiosity about all things science.

“I’m ever so honoured by this prize. I simply couldn’t have achieved what I have without the nurturing environment that the University of Sydney provides for people like me who are perhaps not quite normal or mainstream,” he says.

Dr Karl’s best-known work includes his weekly science hour on the ABC radio station Triple J, as well as segments on BBC radio in the UK. In 2002, he was awarded the prestigious Ig Nobel prize for his research into belly button lint, and why it is almost always blue.

You can watch him in action during an In Class session for Australia's Science Channel.

He is also engaged in a wide range of outreach programs, including twice-weekly free Skype sessions with schools across the world.

The Kalinga Prize, which is funded by the Kalinga Foundation, the Indian Government and the Indian State of Orissa, was founded in 1951 and is UNESCO’s oldest prize. It aims to recognise exceptional contributions made by individuals in science communication and promoting the popularisation of science.

Blog Society 13 September 2019

The focus of Scott Carver's research was the cubed-shape of wombat's poo. 


Researchers Scott Carver, Ashley Edwards and Alynn Martin from the University of Tasmania in Australia, have shared one of this year’s Ig Nobel awards for research that explained how and why Australian wombats do cubed poo.

The poo project was led by Patricia Yang from Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, who became a two-time winner at the Igs.

The team, along with David Hu and Alexander Lee from the Georgia Institute of Technology, worked with colleagues from the US, Taiwan, New Zealand, Sweden, and the UK on the study, which was presented to no less than the American Physical Society last November – and reported in Cosmos.

Now it is one of 10 winners of the tongue-in-cheek yet prestigious awards respected for honouring research that “first makes people laugh, and then makes them think”.

Other research to triumph included work looking at which parts of the body are most pleasurable to scratch, how much saliva a typical five-year-old produces in a day, whether a man’s testicles are the same temperature, and if you can train surgeons with techniques usually reserved for dogs.

You can see the full list of winners and their work here.

And if you have a couple of hours to spare you can watch the full award ceremony from Harvard University below.

Michael Lucy has received one of Australia’s most prestigious science awards.

Blog Space 23 August 2019

The exhibition also showcases the technology that got us there.

Ballarat International Foto Biennale

A new exhibition in the Ballarat Municipal Observatory and Museum in Victoria, Australia, is celebrating all things the Moon.

To the Moon and Back is a photographic exploration celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The exhibition reminds us just how miniscule we are in the universe, with photo collections of outer space as well as the technology we used to travel there.

And, while astronauts no longer walk the surface of the Moon (for now), the event promises to continue to fuel our imaginations of one of the greatest stories of humankind.

The event is a part of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale and runs from 23 August to 20 October.

The exhibition is curated by visual artist, writer and academic Rebecca Najdowski who worked with Melbourne-based artist and academic Dr. Colleen Boyle.

It features work from a diverse group of artists from across the world– with each one presenting a contemporary exploration of the continuing relevance of the historic event.

Visitors can learn how astronauts live in space as well as taking part in different creative sun-print and light-box activities.

More details are available here.

Blog Society 13 August 2019

Natalie Parletta has been honoured for highlighting the importance of food security.

Regular Cosmos contributor Natalie Parletta has won the prestigious Food Security Journalism Award presented by Australia’s Crawford Fund for a Secure Food Future.

It is her second major award in recent months. In June, she received the 2019 Early-Career Award from the Australasian Medical Writers Association (AMWA).

The twin successes highlight Parletta’s high-quality journalism and her commitment to issues around health, the environment, sustainability and food security.

The latest award was for “Foods you’ve never heard of that could change the world”, published here online, as well as in Issue 82 of Cosmos magazine.

The article highlighted work under way in Africa and Australia to revive traditional food crops and bring a range of benefits for local communities.

The prize is a working visit to a developing country yet to be determined.

Parletta says she is looking forward to the opportunity to see sustainable agricultural practices first hand.

“Food security is one of the most pressing issues facing our planet, with population growth, dwindling resources and an erratic climate,” she says.

“Change needs to come from the grass roots up, and lots of people are doing amazing things out there.

“In particular, local and indigenous people have many answers through traditional crops and farming methods and I’m looking forward to sharing some of these.

Researchers are seeking help to save one of the world's great marine environments. 

Jeff Hunter/Getty Images

If news bulletins explaining how climate change has devastated parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef leave you feeling impotent and depressed, maybe getting involved in one of several citizen science projects up there could help.

Researchers from Brisbane-based university QUT run several programs that are turning everyone from secondary school kids to tourists into marine scientists.

Statistician Erin Peterson, for example, designed the Virtual Reef Diver project to drive a new approach to monitoring and managing the Great Barrier Reef.

Members of the public can log on to the website and work through the collection of photographs, classifying the images as they go.

Less “virtual” divers and snorkellers can submit underwater images they have taken while out on the Reef for others to classify.

This work is vital.

“The main challenge that we were trying to address is that the Great Barrier Reef is huge,” says Peterson. “It costs a lot to monitor it all."

Researchers at work on the Great Barrier Reef.


“But there are more than 65 different organisations out there collecting data on the reef – specifically images – all the time.

"Plus we have all these citizens out snorkelling or scuba diving, and everybody has an underwater camera now.

“And so the idea was, can we bring together these image-based data from all these different sources, and learn more about what’s going on to get an estimate of coral cover.”

Once the data is in and classified, data scientists such as Peterson design statistical models to create a predictive map across the whole of the Great Barrier Reef. Thanks to ordinary lay people, the information is as up-to-date as possible.

Meanwhile, reef researcher Brett Lewis, at QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty, has his sights set not on the Great Barrier Reef but its smaller cousins in Moreton Bay, near Brisbane.

His work focusses on reefs in inner Moreton Bay to see how they cope with climate stress, and what that can tell us about the...