Blog Physics 03 December 2018
Nobel laureate Rainer Weiss.

Nobel laureate Rainer Weiss.

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Nobel laureate Rainer Weiss will be a guest at the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) Congress, which will run between December 9 and 13 in Perth, Australia.

The event is billed as “a magnificent week of world-class science” and will be held at the University of Western Australia Crawley Campus.

Weiss won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2017 “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”.

He was awarded half the prize, with the other half shared by physicists Kip Thorne and Barry Barish.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is located in Louisiana and Washington State in the US, and the two centres are calibrated to jointly collect data on gravitational waves.

Construction on LIGO began in 1994, with main observations beginning after 20 years of construction, expansion, and piloting.

In September 2014, the facility detected gravitational waves from two black holes which were converging more than 1.3 billion light years from Earth.

Weiss is now Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge Massachusetts, and an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Louisiana.

Along with the Nobel, he has won numerous international awards including an MIT excellence in teaching award and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has served on committees such as the Committee on NASA Astrophysics Performance Assessment and the Panel on Particle, Nuclear, and Gravitational-wave Astrophysics.

The AIP Congress will be staged jointly with the Australian Optical Society (AOS) Conference, the Australian Conference on Optical Fibre Technology (ACOFT), and the 2018 Conference on Optoelectronic and Microelectronic Materials and Devices (COMMAND 2018).

Other keynote speakers include Julia Yeomans from the University of Oxford in the UK, Michael Wiescher from the University of Notre Dame in...

Blog Biology 14 November 2018
Adding biochar to compost boosts nutrients and productivity.

Adding biochar to compost boosts nutrients and productivity.

Tom Ang/Getty Images

The first ever Australia New Zealand Biochar Study Tour will visit several cities across South Australia and Victoria, Australia, next year.

The tour will be an addition to the third Australia New Zealand Biochar Conference (ANZBC19), scheduled to run between October 20 and 26, 2019.

Biochar refers to the use of charcoal as an additive in soil with the aim of improving the quality of soil, especially for farming.

It has been suggested that this may facilitate carbon sequestration, or the removal of carbon from the atmosphere to be stored indefinitely in solid matter.

The Australia New Zealand Biochar Initiative website says, “the objective of ANZBC19 is to focus on mainstreaming biochar by bringing together stakeholders who wish to achieve commercial scale biochar outcomes with significant economic, environmental and community benefits”.

The tour is aimed at people who might apply these products to their work, such as farmers, horticulturists, and foresters.

Over three days, presenters will take to Mt. Gambier and Tantanoola in South Australia, and Portland in Victoria to discuss practical application and development in the field.

This will be followed by a conference hosted by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, also known as RMIT University, at its Melbourne city campus.

Keynote presenters include Tom Miles and Genxing Pan. Miles is chair of the International Biochar Initiative and works in Oregon in the US, designing systems in biomass processing for things such as power generation and nutrient management. Pan is a soil scientist developing enhanced biochar fertilisers at Nanjing Agricultural University in Jiangsu province, China.

The conference will include presentations from researchers, engineers, and manufacturers among others. The final day of the conference will consist of a field trip around the Melbourne metropolitan area to visit processing and manufacturing sites.

The conference is sponsored by RMIT University and commercial biochar...

Blog Technology 31 October 2018
Understanding the ethical aspects of emerging AI is major public challenge.

Understanding the ethical aspects of emerging AI is major public challenge.

Yuichiro Chino/Getty images

The ethical dilemmas inherent in artificial intelligence (AI) will be the focus of a seminar held at the State Library Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia on 13 November.

Professors Toby Walsh and Sharon Oviatt will sit down to discuss and answer questions about the future of this technology in a forum to be moderated by Kylie Ahern, co-founder of Cosmos magazine.

The event is billed as “The ethical dilemmas of AI – Are we sleepwalking into an AI future” and is open to the public. Register for the event here.

Sharon Oviatt is a professor at Monash University, known for her work in human-computer interaction. Toby Walsh is a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, with a focus on limiting AI “to ensure the public good”.

Registration opens at 5:30pm, with a panel discussion at 6:15pm and networking drinks to follow.

Ahern says the event is open to “anyone with an interest in AI”.

“This talk will help people think bigger about AI and gain a better understanding of what it is and how it might impact us,” she adds.

The panellists are expected to discuss Australia’s investment in the field, the development of commercialised technology and use of this technology to support human needs, activities and values.

Ahern says she plans to ask the panellists about the most impactful and innovative research projects in the field today, as well as questions related to the timeframe for wide-spread AI in our daily lives.

“Outside of academia we don’t have a great understanding of AI, the history of AI research or where it’s headed,” she says.

“What should we be scared of and excited about? What are the safety measures we need to implement? How will it change us and how our behaviours?”

The event Is part of the Monash University Dean’s Seminar Series.

Blog Space 30 October 2018
NASA's InSight mission is now a podcast.

NASA's InSight mission is now a podcast.

AlexLMX/Getty images

A new podcast from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California gives listeners a behind the scenes look at the most recent mission to Mars.

The eight-episode series is titled “On a Mission” and will be airing throughout November, outlining the Mars InSight Lander mission, which launched in May 2018 and is expected to land on the planet in late November.

Host Leslie Mullen is a science journalist who interviews members of the InSight team during each brilliantly produced 20-to-30-minute episode.

The first two episodes outline the history of the mission and the difficulties the lander will face as it attempts to touch down at its designated landing site, Elysium Planitia.

Once it has done so, it will need to rest and remain undisturbed by dust or wind in order to operate. Its primary mission will be to collect data from beneath the surface, including the first measurements of seismic activity on Mars.

One of the key concerns for the InSight team is about dust the craft may face while landing. The engineers at NASA JPL added an additional protective coating to the heat shield to protect it as it enters the atmosphere at more than 12,000 kilometres per hour.

Using a mathematical approach known as Monte Carlo simulations, the team gambles with randomised landing parameters, such as mass, rocket efficiency, flight path angle, and location. In the five years leading up to launch, as many as one million scenarios were simulated.

Planet-wide dust storms are of one such condition for which the team has been planning. These forced the Opportunity Rover into remain in a sleep state since May of this year. The podcast reveals that each morning, the team at NASA JPL start the day by playing a song from their “Wake Up” playlist, which includes delights as diverse as Wham!, the Beatles and Iron Maiden.

The podcasts can be accessed here.

Find out more about Mars InSight here.

Blog Technology 26 October 2018
The Australian Synchrotron.

The Australian Synchrotron.


The director of the Australian Synchrotron, Andrew Peele, is one of 25 new Fellows of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering announced today.

Peele joined the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) facility in 2013 and has been a driving force both in securing funding for its development and in promoting its value, particularly in the areas of health research.

ANSTO’s chief executive officer, Adi Paterson, says he is delighted but not surprised by the election.

“This Fellowship is a testament to Professor Peele’s dedication and hard work in improving people’s lives through the use of powerful synchrotron X-rays and infrared radiation as well as his work in supporting science as President of the Australian Institute of Physics,” he says.

The 25 new Fellows include 10 women, exceeding the Academy’s short-term target of electing one-third of its new Fellows from female candidates. There is one overseas Fellow and one Honorary Fellow.

Academy president, Hugh Bradlow, says their election strengthens the Academy’s aim of ensuring that Australia remains a world-leading technology economy.

“We’re motivated by what’s best for our nation’s future,” he says. “And we do that by bringing together the brightest minds in technology, engineering and science to offer impartial, evidence-based, and practical advice.”

The new Fellows will be welcomed in an official ceremony at the annual meeting of the Academy on November 23 in Melbourne.

Blog Physics 23 October 2018

British astrophysicist and Oxford University visiting professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell is set to talk about her extraordinary career in a live webcast on Thursday, October 25, at 7pm US eastern time (10am Friday, October 26, on east coast Australia).

Burnell is best known for her leading role in 1967 in the discovery of pulsars – a breakthrough widely considered one of the most important scientific advances of the twentieth century.

The achievement led in 1974 to the awarding of a Nobel Prize – not to her, but to her graduate advisor, a scandal still noted, and still uncorrected, today.

Her subsequent career, however, has been every bit as stellar as her early days, and this year she has been awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, not only for her work on pulsars but also for a lifetime spent inspiring others.

The prize is worth $US3 million – a haul she plans to donate entirely to programs aimed at fostering young scientists.

She will officially receive the award at a glittering ceremony to be held on November 4 at the NASA Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley, US, hosted by actor Pierce Brosnan.

Before that, however, she will deliver a live talk at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, in Canada, webcast for people in other parts of the world. The title of her talk is: “What is that?!” The Discovery of Pulsars: A Grad Student’s Story.

The webcast can be found here when it starts.

Blog Physics 17 October 2018
Brian Cox, heading to a venue near you in 2019.

Brian Cox, heading to a venue near you in 2019.

Nicky J Sims/Getty Images for Phil McIntyre Entertainment

Acclaimed English physicist, television presenter and author Brian Cox is heading across the UK, North America, and Asia Pacific region doing a series of shows throughout the first half of 2019.

Dubbed the Universal World Tour, the event will reach major cities in Australia and New Zealand in June. Tickets go on sale on Monday, October 22, at 9 am.

Cox will take his audience on a journey through the cosmos using futuristic imagery gleaned from radio telescopes and space probes. He will discuss the origin and evolution of the universe and of intelligent life.

The show includes never-before-seen images acquired by the Hubble Space telescope, and a journey through a black hole created in collaboration with Academy-award winning visual effects company Double Negative.

Each event will also feature question and answer sessions to allow attendees to clarify their cosmos-related curiosities. Sessions will be co-hosted by award-winning comedian Robin Ince, Cox’s co-host on the long-running BBC radio program The Infinite Monkey Cage.

Cox is professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, in England. He is renowned for his entertaining and informative programs on the BBC, including the award-winning series Wonders of The Solar System, and for his best-selling books including Human Universe (2014) and Forces of Nature (2016).

He has been lauded for his contributions to the field of physics and science communication and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2016. To find out more about his 2019 tour, click here.

Blog Geoscience 16 October 2018
Queensland divers are rallying for the Great Barrier Reef.

Queensland divers are rallying for the Great Barrier Reef.

Westend61/Getty Images

Divers at the University of Queensland in Australia will spend 24 hours under water in an effort to raise money and awareness for coral reefs.

The event, called For the Love of the Reef, is part of the not-for-profit Reef Citizen Science Alliance’s month-long campaign to educate the community and take action to support coral reef sustainability efforts.

A total of 48 divers from the university’s underwater club, UniDive, will take turns diving in pairs at the UQ Sport Aquatic Centre beginning at 9am on Saturday, October 20.

While underwater they will practice the surveying skills which they might use if diving around actual coral reefs. The team, lead by senior research fellow Chris Roelfsema, will coordinate events throughout the day to raise money and awareness about the reef.

According to Roelfsema, “25% of marine creatures originated from, or are depending on, coral reefs, but coral reefs only cover one percent of the ocean floor.

“These regions have the highest biodiversity in the oceans - similar to rainforests on land - and also protect us from weather events.”

He notes the difficulty in raising awareness about coral reefs, saying “a lot of people simply don’t know these facts, and how can you love and protect something if you don’t know enough about it? We are hoping that this event can play its part in changing that”.

The event includes a barbecue and prize raffle, and visitors can participate in activities such as a virtual reef exploration, an underwater rugby demonstration, reef art activities, and a nighttime screening of Lin Sutherland’s film, Beauty and the Reef.

Funds raised will be donated to environmental groups CoralWatch, Reef Check Australia, and Virtual Reef Diver.

The diving marathon is billed as ‘fun for all ages’. Registration details and a full program for the day’s events can be found here.

Blog Technology 12 October 2018
Light Up, a design for an energy efficient adaptation of the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, by NH Architecture.

Light Up, a design for an energy efficient adaptation of the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, by NH Architecture. 


Is this the aesthetic face of our energy future?

The sparkling canopy draped along the beach from the roof of the Palais Theatre in Melbourne, Australia, won local firm NH Architecture first prize in the Australian leg of this year’s Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI).

Called Light Up, the design incorporates solar, wind, tensional energy and microbial fuel cell technologies that could generate 2220 megawatt-hours per year, enough to power 500 homes. Old car batteries repurposed as handrails along the paths could store energy for 24/7 access.

Second prize went to Night and Day, by Olson Kundig from Seattle in the US. The pedestrian bridge linking the esplanade to the sea in the beachside suburb of St Kilda combines solar energy with a hydro battery to generate 1000 MWh per year.

The inner-workings of the system are on show as the solar sail and water vessel, suspended above the walkway, pumps and releases water to create electricity.

The US-based LAGI provides a platform for artists, architects and other creatives to work with engineers and scientists to propose innovative and aesthetic ways to create sustainable energy infrastructure that is also public art.

The competition is held in cities around the world every two years. The 2018 Australian competition, which is sponsored by the government of the state of Victoria, attracted hundreds of entries.

Blog Social Sciences 26 September 2018
The notion of gender-based performance in school STEM subjects is illusory, research shows.

The notion of gender-based performance in school STEM subjects is illusory, research shows.

Caiaimage / Robert Daly / Getty Images

For years the male dominance of STEM-related careers has been explained away as women having less aptitude for the relevant subjects.

But a new study challenges this view, finding a high similarity between male and female performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It suggests that the top 10% of any class was, on average, equal parts male and female.

The study, conducted by Rose O’Dea, a PhD student at Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW), and published in the journal Nature Communications, collected data from more than 1.6 million students, from six years of age across 268 schools. It focused on the gender differences in variability regarding academic grades.

“We already knew that girls routinely out-perform boys at school, and we also expected female grades to be less variable than those of males, so that wasn’t surprising,” she says.

“In fact, our study suggests that these two factors haven’t changed in 80 years.

“However, what was most surprising was that both of these gender differences were far larger in non-STEM subjects, like English. In STEM subjects, girls and boys received surprisingly similar grades in both average and variability.”

Rose O’Dea goes on to speculate about why this is.

“Even if men and women have equal abilities, STEM isn’t an equal playing field for women – and so women often go down paths with less male competition,” she suggests.

Her comments are reflected in the study’s findings, which highlighted gender gap and gender variability differences between STEM subjects and later career paths.

Social stereotypes are also believed to be a contributor to the loss of females in STEM fields, a problem caused by under-representation rather than ability, and one that cannot be easily corrected.

Emma Johnston, Dean of Science at UNSW, says work needs to be done to encourage women to choose a STEM path.

“This powerful, evidence-based...