Achievements in quantum tech & education, challenges for women & climate: stories from the physics congress

In this special mid-January bulletin, we present some stories from December’s AIP Congress in Canberra.

Among the personal highlights for me was the session on women in physics, where we learned about how, instead of improving gender diversity, Australia is going backwards in some areas. With so much more to be done, the AIP has revitalised its Women in Physics group with new members—you can read about them below.

I also had the honour of giving out the AIP prizes at the closing ceremony and the banquet, which was held in the National Gallery of Australia in the presence of Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles”—thankfully explained to us by an expert. Read on for more about the medal winners’ achievements with quantum lasers, nanotechnology and hands-on physics education.

You can also read about the plenary speakers, including Nobel laureates Steven Chu and Serge Haroche, who were featured guests in what was a very strong program. Abstracts from the presentations are still available on the Congress website.

My thanks to Congress Chair John Howard and his team for their efforts leading up to and throughout the week, and especially to Jodie Bradby for organising the main events.

The next AIP Congress will be in Brisbane in 2016, in conjunction with the 13th Asia-Pacific Physics Conference.

Last month saw a reshuffle of the federal cabinet and Australia once again has a Minister of Science, with Ian MacFarlane adding science to his industry title. This is surely good news, as were the soothing words about research funding from the Minister of Education, Christopher Pyne, in his speech opening the Congress. However, time will tell what these mean in real terms.

The International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies began on 1 January, with a giant light bulb on the Sydney Harbour Bridge during the fireworks. With the world’s attention once more shining on physics, I encourage you to make the most of it and have a happy and productive new year in physics.

AIP members are invited to attend our annual general meeting, which will take place at 5.30 pm on 2 February 2015 at the Australian Synchrotron in Clayton, Victoria. If you’re in Melbourne, please come along and help shape our year.

Please note that replies to this email go to Science in Public, who send the bulletin out for me. You can contact me directly on, and there is a comprehensive list of contact details at the end of the bulletin.



Rob Robinson
President, Australian Institute of Physics

AIP Congress stories

Women in physics still going backwards

Australia’s physicists heard that they’re still losing the fight for gender equity in the physical sciences.

The ANU’s Joanna Sikora has found that Australian schoolgirls still prefer life sciences to physical sciences (chemistry, physics, etc.) – with a 2:1 ratio. At university that worsens to 4:1 locking out women from many career options. University of Melbourne researchers Sharon Bell and Lyn Yateshave found that the proportion of women in senior science positions is improving at just 1 per cent per annum, and going backwards in lower levels.

Institute of Physics President Frances Saunders explained how UK physicists are fixing the problem with Project Juno. Could Australia follow them?

You can see the full media release on their Congress talks at

AIP Women in Physics Group reinvigorated

The AIP is also working to improve the status quo with the revival of its Women in Physics Group. The new team comprises:

Chair: Helen Maynard-Casely (ANSTO)
Vice-Chair: Joanna Turner (USQ)
Secretary: Joseph Hope (ANU)

State reps:
ACT: Jodie Bradby (ANU)
NSW: Kirrily Rule (ANSTO)
NT: still looking
QLD: Joanna Turner (USQ)
SA: Solmaz Saboohi and Sophie Hollitt (UniSA)
TAS: Elizabeth Chelkowska (UTas)
VIC: Sarah Maddison (Swinburne Uni)
WA: Elaine Walker (Murdoch Uni) and Mario Zadnik (UWA)

Quantum lasers and better ways to engage students win medals for physicists

The AIP recognised physicists at the congress, awarding the Alan Walsh, Education, Walter Boas and Harrie Massey medals.

Laser beams guarantee data privacy for companies and governments

Computers of the future will be fast enough to crack current encryption methods—we need something better. Researchers from ANU, UQ and their spin-out company QuintessenceLabs have cracked the problem, sending quantum particles of light down optical fibres to guarantee that no one has eavesdropped on the shared encryption key. The creators received the Alan Walsh Medalfor service to industry on Wednesday night.

The recipients are ANU researcher and co-founder of QuintessenceLabs, Ping Koy Lam, Timothy Ralph (UQ) and Thomas Symul (ANU).

Timothy Ralph and Ping Koy Lam with AIP President Rob Robinson.
Photo credit: Bernhard Seiwald

Letting first-year students loose in the lab

Are we teaching science the right way? Many of us learn best by doing, and that’s Les Kirkup’sapproach to teaching: challenging his students with practical problems, but not giving them the instructions for solving the problems—they have to work it out themselves.

With this inquiry-oriented learning approach, and using real-world problems, Les engages the students’ imagination and creativity right from the start—even students who are apprehensive about tackling physics, or for whom physics will not be a career focus.

Les Kirkup was awarded the 2014 AIP Education Medal this year for his contribution to physics education.

Bending light for nanoscale photonics and light-driven computing

Electromagnetic materials made up of tiny, engineered structures smaller than the wavelength of light can demonstrate many exotic properties—these metamaterials have promised invisibility cloaks that curve light around the subject being hidden, causing it, effectively, to vanish from sight.

Yuri Kivshar from the ANU is taking these materials further, using them to control the magnetic response of light. For pioneering work in nonlinear optics and light-bending metamaterials, Prof Kivshar received the 2014 AIP Harrie Massey medal at the Congress dinner.

The Harrie Massey Medal and Prize commemorates Melbourne-born Sir Harrie Massey, who co-published the first experimental evidence for electron diffraction in gases, and went on to lead the UK space research programme.

Yuri Kivshar receiving his medal from Rob Robinson, AIP President, and Frances Saunders, IOP President. Photo credit: Bernhard Seiwald.

Growing nanolasers from a cloud of vapour

As electronics and optics further into the nanoscale, we need ways to make tinier components. Chennupati Jagadish and his team from the Australian National University are using a metal-organic vapour to deposit molecules on a surface to grow structures like quantum dots—islands of semiconductor within another material—and nanowires a few tens of atoms across that operate as semiconductor lasers.

For his work on semiconductor optoelectronics and nanotechnology, Chennupati Jagadish was awarded the 2013 Walter Boas Medal for excellence in physics research.

Fusion futures, climate change and catching a speeding electron

Steven Chu on prudent management of risks of climate change with continued economic growth

Plenary speaker Steven Chu, former Obama energy advisor and 1997 Nobel laureate, discussed the reinvention of the microscope and, in a number of other engagements, the global energy and climate challenge. His program culminated in a National Press Club address on Wednesday, 10 December.

Finding the creative dimension of physics

Harvard theoretical physicist and plenary speaker Lisa Randall thinks that creativity and great science go hand in hand. Not only is creativity is essential in science, she says, but a logical, scientific approach helps creative people illuminate the world. Lisa’s work connects fundamental particles with cosmological phenomena like dark matter.

Her most prominent contributions to physics relate to multi-dimensional theories: she co-wrote the warped-spacetime model that proved extra dimensions didn’t need to be vanishingly small, and believes the Universe has 11 spacetime dimensions.

In keeping with the Congress theme—The Art of Physics—Lisa has written a libretto for an opera and curated art exhibits.

Clouds not helping

Improved modelling of clouds has indicated that it may no longer be possible to limit the warming of the globe to 2°C by 2100—an increase that was considered merely ‘dangerous’. Potentially we could be facing 3°C, or even 4°C.

Plenary speaker Steve Sherwood is Director of the Climate Change Research Centre at UNSW, and models both the expected temperature increase from given CO2 levels and the effect of that new climate on human population. His team’s improved modelling of expected cloud reductions has shown that the upper level is more likely than previously thought.

And what would it be like? “4°C would likely be catastrophic rather than simply dangerous,” says Sherwood. “It would make life difficult, if not impossible, in much of the tropics, and would guarantee the eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet and some of the Antarctic ice sheet”.

Strobe light flashes to capture a speeding electron

Strobe lights and camera flashes have let us capture the motion of galloping horses and speeding bullets, but plenary speaker Paul Corkum can make flashes of light so quick that he can watch electrons in orbit around an atom, or see how they move in chemical reactions.

These attosecond pulses—a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a second—have put the Canadian physicist on pundits’ hotlist for a Nobel Prize in Physics.

It’s a long way from when, as a grad student, he had to convince interviewers he could handle the shift from theoretical to experimental physics: “It’s no problem. I can take the engine of a car apart, repair it and put it back together so it will work.” He got the job.

Finding airports on planets circling distant stars

Research astronomer and plenary speaker Lisa Harvey-Smith from CSIRO is part of the team working towards Australia’s part in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope. She also actively supports women in science and is a keen ultramarathon runner, currently in training for ANZAC Ultra 2015—a six-day, 435 km race on the Canberra Centenary Trail.

Lisa presented recent results from the prototype for the SKA—the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP)—which is being put through its paces prior to going into action next year. ASKAP, with 36 radio dishes, and the SKA, with many more receivers again, will produce pictures of the universe covering a greater area and looking deeper into space than is currently possible.

So sensitive that it would be able to detect an airport radar on a planet 50 light years away, SKA will also show us stars and galaxies forming in the very early universe.

Is there a fusion future?

Scientists at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France expect to achieve proof-of-concept nuclear fusion power before 2030, moving on to a commercial prototype in the next decade. Meanwhile in October US firm Lockheed Martin said they’ll have a prototype in five years and a commercial plant in ten.

Plenary speaker Steve Cowley from the UK Atomic Energy Authority explained where we are in the hunt for the holy grail of cheap, clean fusion energy, and the likelihood we’ll achieve it.

Letting the quantum cat out of the box

French Nobel laureate and plenary speaker Serge Haroche is exploring the peculiar quantum world, in which Schrödinger’s hypothetical cat can be both alive and dead at the same time. But instead of a cat in a box, he’s trapping photons between superconducting mirrors—and finding things are just as weird as expected.

On Tuesday 9 December, Prof Haroche received the Dirac Medal and gave the 2014 Dirac Public Lecture at UNSW: ‘The beauty and serendipity of blue sky research’. The Dirac Medal has been awarded by UNSW and the Australian Institute of Physics NSW branch since 1979.

Leading educators evaluate MOOCs and visualisation techniques

MOOCS—better than uni?

After delivering three massive open online courses (MOOCs) in astrophysics to 25,000 students, ANU’s Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt and colleague Paul Francis argue that a good MOOC can be “a better learning experience than the vast majority of face-to-face classes taught at universities”. But the workload is surprisingly high and requires a different skill set than on-campus teaching.

Paul and Brian incorporated two innovations in their successful course: holding conversations between the two of them rather than giving lectures; and involving the students in proposing and solving experiments on a mystery bubble universe each week of the course.

Special effects reveal scientific insights

When data from a tornado in Illinois were fed into a visualisation, the scientists were surprised to find a secondary tornado (the front column of balls on the right in the still from the animation, below) in advance of the main tornado column—a phenomenon their observations had missed.

“It’s an example of how visualising numerical data can produce new scientific insight,” says Roy Tasker, from the University of Western Sydney, who believes visualisation is also the key to ensuring that students truly grasp the difficult scientific concepts they are learning.

Certainly his first-year students have a better grasp of what’s really going on in chemical reactions after seeing, and working with, visualisations. “It’s the key to making meaning from the symbolism and mathematics in science that too often alienate novice students,” Roy says.

With an Office of Teaching and Learning National Senior Teaching Fellowship, Roy will be running workshops for Australian educators across the sciences on best practice in computer animations in education. His goal is to see much wider use of visualisations in teaching science.

Photo credit: National Center for Supercomputing Applications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The art of physics

The congress theme was ‘The Art of Physics’, and artworks inspired by science were on display and under discussion.

Lab junk into Labpunk

A physicist with a passion for art and an artist with a passion for science are re-purposing scientific lab equipment to make original jewellery and sculpture art.

Margaret Wegener (the physicist) and AK Milroy (the artist) have turned an old laser crystal into a flash bulb lapel pin (top right). The pin was presented to plenary speaker Paul Corkum, who uses lasers to create incredibly fast ‘flash bulbs’ to catch electrons in orbit around an atom.

Theoretical physicist Lisa Randall’s memento is a silver warped space-time cuff (left), depicting the model of the universe that her work addresses.

Physicists require pure materials, such as quartz crystals that provide extremely accurate measures of time; this also makes them excellent for art, says Margaret. “Some broken crystal resonators that were given to me have been cut as gemstones (bottom right), and they look fabulous.”

Wegener and Milroy have created a unique piece of wearable art for each plenary speaker at the Congress derived from that speaker’s area of physics. Their work will be on exhibition at the Congress.

You can see many of the speakers with their gifts in the congress photos – follow the photo link on the AIP2014 Congress website – and find out more at Labpunk.

Photo credit: Green Vale Gallery

Using science to create patterns

On Wednesday 10 December, conference delegates used coloured electrical tape and stickers to create a collaborative drawing investigating complex systems, in an art-science experiment by artist Briony Barr and physicist Andrew Melatos.

The artwork emerged from simple rules of interaction determined by genetic codes—repeated by many participants these interactions will create complex patterns. The final outcome was unpredictable—a characteristic of a complex system such as the stock market or a weather system.

You can see images of the artwork in production on Flickr.

Photo credit: Briony Barr

Lasers, photonics, X-ray microscopes, sonar and finding dark matter in a gold mine

Worldwide spider web—spinning natural fibre optics

Anyone who’s stumbled into spider webs knows how transparent they are, and now Douglas Littlefrom Macquarie University is using this property to create fibre optics.

Super-strong and up to a thousandth of the width of a human hair, the organic nature of spider silk makes it suitable for use in biomedical sensors, as well as in photonics and the future of the world wide web.

Shrinking X-ray microscopes down to fit on the laboratory bench

A portable synchrotron? The $200 million Australian Synchrotron’s creates amazing X-ray microscopic images. But a Monash physicist thinks he can create an X-ray microscope sized to fit on your lab bench. X-ray microscopes offer resolution down to a few tens of millionths of a millimetre—the size of an average-sized virus, or a thousandth of the size of a blood cell.

But X-ray microscopy usually requires really, really significant machinery: Australia’s most powerful X-ray microscope—the Synchrotron at Clayton—takes a hundred scientists to operate, and is the size of a football field.

What if you could realise the amazing resolution of X-ray microscopy on a machine that sat on your laboratory bench? Daniele Pelliccia of Monash University is working on making this possible.

Football physics tackles hamstring injuries

What can physics tell us about hamstrings—the most common injury in Australian rules football and soccer. Despite endless discussion on footy shows, the common Australian ‘hammy’ is not well understood.

Recently, motion-capture of footy players in action and MRI scans of living tissue have been matched with a complex mathematical model to give new insights into how this injury occurs, and could help develop techniques to reduce injury rates.

Bronwyn Dolman, who was part of the study, is also involved in development of an automated Aussie rules football kicking machine with final year mechanical engineering students at the University of Adelaide.

Laser tracking of carbon-belching cattle

Livestock belch out around ten per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions. There are ways to reduce this, but how do you measure their success? New technology designed to measure methane emissions from cattle out in the field could provide the answer.

Working with CSIRO’s Livestock Methane Research cluster, Brian Orr (from Macquarie University) and his colleagues are developing laser-based instruments that can be used in cattle yards and open ranges to detect the concentration of methane and ammonia molecule in air, as well as other gases that could be useful indicators of animal health and air quality.

Picking endangered parrots out from the dawn chorus

For the first time, artificial sound recognition is matching the abilities of the human ear. A ‘universal’ sound recogniser isn’t restricted to only recognising music, or only recognising speech. It can be set to recognise any sound, or any group of sounds.

Neil Boucher’s sound-recognition system can pick a dozen different birdsongs from the cacophony of a dawn chorus, and is being used to track the movement of one of the world’s rarest species—the endangered orange-bellied parrot in Tasmania. But the system has also been used to monitor whale calls, the pulsing sonar ‘ping’ of bats, and frog calls.

Sonar: could maths and science have shortened WW1?

The First World War saw the stuttering beginnings of modern military physics. In secret, the British were operating the largest military science project to date.

The first combined military-civilian research project, a team of a thousand scientists including Nobel laureates Ernest Rutherford and William Bragg, was working on a sonar system to detect enemy submarines. Working sonar rigs were being attached to British ships by the end of the war, by which time 5000 ships and 15,000 lives had been lost to German U-boats.

University of Queensland physicist Timo Nieminen has studied the physics of WWI, both successful and unsuccessful, and links from this to the much more resourced, more famous Manhattan Project of WWII.

Stawell gold mine to join the search for the missing 85 per cent of our galaxy

The Victorian government has committed $1.75 million to help Australian scientists hunt for dark matter two km underground in the Stawell gold mine in regional Victoria.

The project will commence once the Federal government provides matching support from their regional development program. The funding will enable physicists to create the Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory and construct a dark matter particle detector paired with a matching detector under an Italian mountain.

The Victorian government has committed $1.75 million to help Australian scientists hunt for dark matter two km underground in the Stawell gold mine in regional Victoria, commencing once the Federal government provides matching support.

More info at

Challenging the orthodoxy in dark matter, dark energy, fusion and more

Good science happens when clever people ask insightful questions. Some papers at the national physics congress in Canberra last week took on their colleagues—asking penetrating questions of mainstream science.

Defence against the dark parts

In theory, dark matter and dark energy together comprise 95 per cent of the Universe. But no-one’s ever seen them. No-one’s quite sure what they’re made of, nor how they work. Do they exist at all?

The textbooks say they must exist—to account for observations such as the rapid spin of the outer reaches of our galaxy and the accelerating expansion of the Universe. But ‘inventing’ something to fix the equations makes some physicists nervous. And there are other theories that also explain these observed phenomena—without the need for dark matter and dark energy.

A handful of physicists at the national physics congress in Canberra last week favour other explanations of the basic building blocks of the Universe.

See details at

Year of Light starts at Sydney NYE Fireworks

Celebrating the Light Year ahead

The International Year of Light in Australia started with a bang at Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks.

A giant light bulb took centre stage on the Sydney Harbour Bridge during the ‘Inspire’-themed light and laser display, with the International Year of Light logo projected onto the bridge’s pylons.

On Monday 19 January the International Year of Light will be officially launched at the UNESCO Opening Ceremony in Paris. The two-day event will feature lectures from international delegates, including Nobel laureates Steven Chu and Serge Haroche, as well as Sune Svanberg, former Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics.

The Paris Opening Ceremony will be live streamed over the internet at, and Year of Light in Australia committee member and director of CUDOS Ben Eggleton will be tweeting from the event.

Coming up for the rest of the year you can expect a whole host of exciting events, festivals and activities, including Iridescence at the SA Museum, Enlighten in Canberra, the Light in Winter Festival in Melbourne and VIVID in Sydney.

To get involved with the International Year of Light in Australia, please visit and sign up for the newsletter, view the events calendar or submit your own activities. You can also follow us on Twitter at @LightYearAU.