Leader in ocean physics awarded in Prime Minister’s Science Prizes

This year’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Science has gone to a mathematician who wondered how much heat is contained in a kilogram of seawater, while he was swimming in freshwater in Boston.

Trevor McDougall AC, Scientia Professor of Ocean Physics in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of New South Wales, has received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, recognising “his transformative impact in the study of oceanography and ocean thermodynamics. “

McDougall told Cosmos that while discovering new things always has its “wow” moment, he specifically recalls on one of his birthdays – while swimming before breakfast in a freshwater pool, near Boston in the United States – when he came up with the idea for a different variable used in defining the thermodynamic properties of seawater. 

Trevor mcdougal standing in front of the ocean
Professor Trevor McDougall.

Seawater thermodynamics basically answers the question “how much heat is contained in a kilogram of seawater?” Scientists had been struggling with this for a century and McDougall’s work improved its accuracy by a factor of 100. He led an international group of researchers in redefining the definition of seawater thermodynamics, which was adopted by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in 2009 as the new international standard.

McDougall’s work has also been instrumental in our understanding of how the ocean moves and its mixing processes, defining the ocean’s neutral density surfaces. Like a traffic light drink with different layers of colours, the ocean has layers of different densities. It’s very easy for mixing to occur within those layers (the direction of strong mixing), but much harder for mixing to occur between them.

By developing a theoretical framework to map the ocean’s neutral densities, his work helps scientists model the role of the ocean in the movement of heat around the planet. This is incredibly important for climate change research, because over 90% of the extra heating caused by global warming is found in the ocean.

All the winners in the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes

2022 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation
Adj. Professor Alison Todd and Dr Elisa Mokany, co-founders of SpeeDx which has commercialised
molecular diagnostics technology.
Dr Nick Cutmore (CSIRO) and Dr James Tickner (CSIRO) and Dirk Treasure (CEO Chief Executive Officer, Chrysos Corporation, for commercialisation of mining technology.

2022 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
Dr Adele Morrison, is a physical oceanographer and ocean modeller. She is recognised for her
investigations into the impact of changing ocean conditions on sea level rise and climate.

2022 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year

Professor Si Ming Man (ANU) in recognition of his significant contributions to the fields of immunology and infectious disease. (As featured in Cosmos.)

2022 Prime Minister’s Prize for New Innovators

Dr Pip Karoly, senior research fellow at The University of Melbourne. Recognised for her research into epileptic seizure cycles and why seizures occur.

Assoc. Professor Brett Hallam improvements to photovoltaic (PV) technology in the field of hydrogen
passivation in solar cells.

2022 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools

Mr George Pantazis is the STEM Coordinator at Marble Bar Primary School, where he leads an
integrated STEM program combining western pedagogy with First Nations culture and knowledge.

2022 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools

As STEM Project Leader and Head of Technology at Viewbank College, Ms Nair has led the
development of curricular and extracurricular STEAM projects, including several new electives
including 3D printing, emerging technologies, engineering and integrated art and technology
projects like wearables.

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