Physics in a pandemic, South Korea ties; send your science selfies

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal and state leaders have depended on the expert advice provided by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. One of its members include a physicist.

You can meet him in this month’s #PhysicsGotMeHere profile below.

The AIP extends hearty congratulations to University of Queensland physicist Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop – who last month became the first woman to be awarded the US Optical Society’s C.E.K. Mees Medal.

Make a note in your diary to join Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley and a star-studded physics cast for the 2021 Frontiers of Science Forum, on next week. Read on for details.

Read on, too, for news of our forthcoming Summer Meeting, committee opportunities, a prize nomination and new collaborations with colleagues in southeast Asia.

The next issue of the AIP’s print magazine, Australian Physics, will be available soon. While you wait for your copy to arrive, check out this month’s ‘From the Vault’ story’ below.

You may have noticed that the AIP’s Facebook page became a victim of the tech giant’s purge of Australian news sites last month. We’re happy to report that it’s now back online and urge you, if you haven’t already, to check it out and follow us. You can find it here.

Sloshing quantum fluids and puffy galaxies were just two of the Australian physics research stories to make the news last month. Read on for these and more.

And, of course, in this issue you’ll find news of interesting jobs, interesting meetings and many other matters that make up the physics ecosystem in this country. Enjoy!

Kind regards,

Sven Rogge
President, Australian Institute of Physics

AIP News

Summer’s coming, and so is our biennial meeting

Mark your diaries for the AIP Summer Meeting, set to take place in Brisbane this December.

The event was founded in 2017 and takes place every two years, alternating with the AIP Congress.

This year the meeting will be held at the Queensland University of Technology, running from December 6 to 9. It will be chaired by QUT’s Associate Professor Jennifer MacLeod

More details, including program, registration and sponsors, will appear soon at

Does history lurk in your bookshelves?

The secretariat is on the hunt for the program produced to accompany the AIP Congress held in Brisbane in 1984. If anyone has a copy, please get in touch on

Low energy searches for new physics: get set for our latest livestreamed event

Dark matter has been witnessed through astrophysical observation, but its direct detection remains elusive.

In the next AIP livestreamed event, join Maxim Goryachev from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics  as he discusses different detection experiments which are under development at the University of Western Australia.

Dr Goryachev will argue that low energy experiments backed up by precision and quantum metrology can open new frontiers in experimental searches for new physics, in turn producing new technologies. 

The livestream kicks off on Zoom at 11am on Friday, March 5. Register here

The link to a recording of last month’s talk, by Professor Lisa Kewley from ASTRO 3D, is available here.

#PhysicsGotMeHere: Meet James McCaw

Name: James McCaw

Employer: The University of Melbourne

Job title and description: Professor of Mathematical Biology

My career story so far:
I’m a mathematical biologist, specialising in infectious diseases epidemiology. At the University of Melbourne, I lead a diverse team of research scientists with backgrounds in physics, mathematics, biology, public health and computer science. We all have a strong desire to improve public health by studying how infectious diseases spread through the population. We do this through the development and application of mathematical models to laboratory, clinical and epidemiological data.

My career in epidemiology came as a surprise to me. In 2005, having just completed a PhD in theoretical physics – where I attempted to characterise chaotic dynamics in quantum systems – I saw a job advertisement in the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. They were advertising for an ‘infectious diseases modeller’ and wanted to recruit someone with a background in physics, engineering or mathematics. I had no idea what it was about, but I was curious.

A little investigation led me to some fascinating mathematics: the application of non-linear dynamical systems theory to infectious diseases data. And I discovered that physicists had been foundational in establishing the field. Indeed, Lord Robert May of Oxford, who sadly passed away on 28 April last year, had begun his career in nuclear physics in Sydney. He had seen the opportunities for mathematics to contribute to the life-sciences, first in ecology and then in the infectious diseases of humans. In 1992, with Roy Anderson, he co-authored the now seminal book Infectious Diseases of Humans: Dynamics and Control. I had the pleasure of meeting with him in Oxford on a few occasions. And as it so happens, he was a life-long friend of my PhD supervisor, Professor Bruce McKellar.

Anyway, I took a chance and applied for the job. My dream of a post-doctoral position in physics was put on hold. Infectious diseases epidemiology – and a post-doc in a medical faculty – awaited me. I never looked back.

Today, 16 years on, I’ve found my way back across campus, employed as a member of academic staff in the School of Mathematics and Statistics as Professor of Mathematical Biology. I retain a 20 per cent appointment in Population and Global Health. I still consider myself a physicist, of sorts. My education certainly shaped how I see the world, and how I attack problems. I examine data, using it to motivate the structure of non-linear dynamics models. I then study the bifurcation structure of those models, their transient dynamics and asymptotic behaviour. Just as in physics, my research is an interplay between theory and experiment. It’s just that the problems aren’t those that appear in traditional physics text books.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put my research field on the map. The Susceptible-Infectious-Recovered (SIR) model and the reproduction number (R0) are suddenly common knowledge. This is incredibly exciting to see. Epidemiology, and biology more broadly, is changing – and it isn’t just about ‘data science analytics’ and machine learning.

I think there is a more fundamental change on the way. We are shifting our viewpoint for how we make sense of the biological world. Models, once largely conceptual (and secondary to the empirical study of the diverse and deeply complex systems that characterise biology) are becoming quantitative and more highly valued. Pictures are giving way to equations. Hand-waving arguments are giving way to dynamical systems. Interrogating biological data with these models provides new insight. It reveals discrepancies. It hints at overlooked mechanisms. Sense can be made of the structures and patterns emerging.

Transmission dynamics models – and their application to data – have been a crucial component of the COVID-19 response. Since 2005, I have worked closely with the Australian government on pandemic preparedness. And in January 2020 I was asked to join the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee as one of just a handful of ‘invited experts’. In this role I have been advising government and National Cabinet on everything from the early border closure with China to a risk-assessment of emerging ‘variants of concern’ and the possible implications for our hotel quarantine system. In between, I’ve advised on school closures, mask-wearing, stay-at-home orders and almost every other policy decision faced by our governments. Models, and ‘physics thinking’ have formed the foundation for my thoughts, views and advice.

My training in physics – plus a decade of on-the-ground training in infectious diseases biology, epidemiology and public health – was the ideal preparation to make a contribution to our emergency response. Physicists know how to develop models and study out-of-equilibrium dynamics. And the emergence of a novel pathogen, spreading into a fully-susceptible population, which itself is responding with restrictions and other measures designed to limit transmission, is most-certainly an out-of-equilibrium dynamical system.

What better training than in physics?

2021 Frontiers of Science Forum

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, will lead a star-studded team of presenters at this year’s Frontiers of Science Forum.

The event, presented by the AIP, Teachers’ Guild of NSW and the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, will take place on Friday, March 12, at the Concord Golf Club in inner-western Sydney.

The forum will explore major discoveries and theories in physics, mathematics, biology and chemistry.

Joining Dr Foley will be:

Professor Judith Dawes from Macquarie University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, talking about sensing with nanoparticles and random lasers;

Dr Daniel Mansfield, from UNSW’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, discussing new arithmetic from Ancient Mesopotamia;

Professor Antoine van Oijen from the University of Wollongong, on the topic of microbes, microscopes, and molecules;

And Dr Markus Müllner from the University of Sydney’s School of Chemistry, looking at how modern polymer chemistry advances technology.

The event kicks off at 5:15pm AEDT, and registration is essential. Do so here.

Closer ties with South Korea for theoretical Australians

Closer ties between physicists in Australia and south-east Asia are likely following an agreement struck between the AIP and Asia-Pacific Centre for Theoretical Physics (APCTP), based in Pohang, South Korea.

The arrangement means greater AIP involvement in APCTP activities, including conferences and workshops. A series of collaborative seminars, looking at theoretical physics, is already being organised.

These events, and other news, will be promoted using the newly minted Twitter handle for AIP’s theoretical physics group: @ausphysicsTPG.

The new spirit of cooperation between the two bodies is the direct result of a connection originally established by Professor Bruce McKellar, Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale at the University of Melbourne.

Seen on the screen: AIP meetings format a virtual success

Like so many meetings in the past 12 months, this years’ AIP Council Meeting and AGM went fully-virtual – and, for the most part, the format worked very well. 

During the Council Meeting members, topical group leaders and cognate representatives all contributed from their homes or places of work, coming in and out of the proceedings as circumstances allowed. The Zoom format allowed many people to voice opinions, through talking to the group and via chats – which was very useful.

The biggest downsides, of course, were the absence of casual social interactions and the annual group dinner.  

Many of the topics discussed revolved around the effects of the pandemic COVID on the AIP and the broader university sector.  There were a lot of issues raised by from branches and topical groups, but it was pleasing to see the positive responses to the AIP’s advocacy efforts in 2020. 

Supporting physicists across Australia is our key role. One of the significant outcomes of this Council meeting was the resolution to introduce a new topical group jointly between Astronomical Society of Australia and the AIP – for astroparticle physics.  Contact Kirrily Rule at to find out more.

The AGM was held on February 10.  It was a lively affair, and it great to see so many people joining in from so many different locations!  It was almost a record attendance, so we will certainly consider streaming it via Zoom in future years!

More physics awards and opportunities

Would you like to join the National Committee for Physics?

The Australian Academy of Science (AAS) is looking for an early-to-mid career researcher to join its National Committee for Physics (NCP).

The AAS convenes 22 discipline-based national committees for science. These work with Australian and international scientists to foster their discipline, provide input into policy, and advise the Academy’s Council on Australia’s representation on the International Science Council and other international bodies.

The NCP aims to foster physics in Australia, to link the Academy to Australian physicists and relevant scientific societies, and to serve as a link between Australian and overseas physicists, primarily through the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics and the International Commission for Optics.

In December 2021, the NCP launched the Physics decadal plan 2012–2021: building on excellence in physics. The plan was jointly created by the Academy, the Australian Institute of Physics, the Australian Research Council and the physics community.

NCP is now seeking an early-to-mid career researcher (EMCR) working in a field of physics to join the committee. The role involves:

  • providing discipline-specific input to the National Committee, through an EMCR perspective;
  • providing input from a broad science-sector perspective, by linking with EMCR Forum.

The term runs for three years and currently involves at least six video-conference committee meetings per year.  More information, eligibility criteria and the application form can be found here. If you have any questions, please contact the Academy’s National Committees team:  

Applications are due by March 19.

Let us see your physics pix and selfies!

The Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for Physics is on the hunt for great physics photos to illustrate its end-of-term report on the Physics decadal plan 2012-2021: building on excellence in physics.

The committee is seeking images that feature and represent Australian physics, demonstrating the diversity of the people and the field. These can be individuals or groups in any physics discipline, in laboratories, in the field – or anywhere where physics work happens.

The images should be publication quality, accompanied by a short description, credit and permission of use from the owner.

Please upload images here, along with the necessary information. Feel free to share this call with your colleagues.

Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop becomes the first woman to win the US C.E.K. Mees Medal

University of Queensland physicist Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop has become the first woman to be awarded the US Optical Society’s C.E.K. Mees Medal.

Professor Rubinsztein-Dunlop was one of 17 scientists honoured in the 2021 OSA awards, held on February 16.

She was awarded the medal – which was introduced in 1961 – for “pioneering innovations in the transfer of optical angular momentum to particles, using sculpted light for laser manipulation on atomic, nano-, and microscales to generate fundamental insight and provide powerful probes to biomedicine.”

Professor Rubinsztein-Dunlop has close ties with the AIP – and was our Women in Physics lecturer in 2003. She is also the current chair of the National Committee for Physics.

Who is the best high school physics teacher in the Sunshine State? Have your say …

The search is on for Queensland’s best high school physics teacher.

Nominations are open for state AIP branch’s Excellence in Physics Teaching Award 2021. It comprises a cash prize, plaque and certificate.

Closing date is Friday, June 4. Details and forms are available here.

Any questions? Write to

Coming up in the next issue of Australian Physics magazine

The next edition of Australian Physics will roll off the press later this month. Look out for these exciting stories:

Valuable skills for society
Physicists have valuable problem-solving skills. The various career paths open to physicists are testament to that. Sven Rogge, the new AIP President, explains in our conversation piece that clearly communicating this to the Australian community is the nut we need to crack .

In #PhysicsGotMeHere, Sarah Midgley OAM describes how problem-solving skills link together for her with specialised knowledge about careers in STEM and technologies to help advise others in government on future workforce issues.

Top hats, combs, and earthworms
At the research level, Oliver Stockdale, Matthew Reeves and, Matthew Davis demonstrate, in their article on vortex top hats in superfluids, how physics helps to solve tricky problems at the quantum level.  Ivan Maksymov and Sergey Suslov show how microwave frequency combs could lead the way to manipulating the human brain. The latter inspired our front cover which shows Faraday waves in small particle assemblies.

In earthly endeavours of research and problem-solving, our Young Physicists explore what happens when you stimulate earth worms to vibrate using a subwoofer. The underlying work gained Ivan Maksymov and Andriy Pototsky an Ig Nobel Prize in 2020.

Calling all physics writers …

The Australian Physicist, now Australian Physics, has been produced by the AIP since 1964. It is the oldest science magazine in Australia.

Current editors Peter Kappen and David Hoxley are always on the hunt for material to include in forthcoming issues.

To that end, they also invite members to submit:  

  • Pitches for articles describing current research;
  • Physics-themed cartoons;
  • Reviews of physics-themed books (they might even be able to get the book for you!);
  • Physics poetry;
  • Obituaries of recently passed members.

Proposals and finished items can be sent to

FROM THE VAULT: stories from The Australian Physicist
This month in 1979: The physics of sailing

Please note, this excerpt contains gendered language that is at odds with the AIP’s current commitment to equality and gender neutrality.

Few physicists know much of sailing theory, a failing well paralleled by a general lack of familiarity with the formalism of physics on the part of most sailors. Despite this observation, discussion between avid yachtsmen are well sprinkled with terms such as “lift”, “balance” and “turning moment”. This leads to conclusions that sailing is very much a physicist’s sport, and that many yachtsmen know more physics than they realise…

Read the full story here.

News from Science and Technology Australia

Science translation fund a must, says STA

Campus Morning Mail reports:

The government should seize on pandemic-driven community support for science and establish a $2.4bn fund to translate research into practical applications.

“With the crucial role of science front and centre in the public mind, it’s time to secure the science capabilities we need to face the crisis after COVID – and the ones after that,” says Misha Schubert from peak-lobby Science and Technology Australia.

STA’s budget submission says such a commercialisation fund, “would drive deeper collaboration between universities and business, create new local jobs, and boost sovereign capability.”

Read the full story here.

 Australian physics in the news

Sloshing quantum fluids of light and matter to probe superfluidity

The ‘sloshing’ of a quantum fluid comprised of light and matter reveals superfluid properties.

An Australian-led team of physicists have successfully created sloshing quantum liquids in a ‘bucket’ formed by containment lasers.

“These quantum fluids are expected to be as wavy as the oceans, but catching clear pictures of the waves is an experimental challenge,” says lead author Dr Eliezer Estrecho.

Led by the Australian National University (ANU), the team serendipitously observed the wavy motion of the quantum fluid in an optically-controlled bucket, gaining new insights of the intriguing superfluid properties of this peculiar, hybrid light-matter system.

Read more here.

Puffy galaxies more productive after cosmic noon

Star formation in the Universe peaked about 10-billion years ago at a time known colloquially as the ‘cosmic noon’, but astronomers have found that some galaxies seem to be better able to carry on making stars into the ‘cosmic afternoon’ than others.

In its relative infancy, our Universe was producing new stars at a prodigious rate, fast enough that the majority were already formed about 10-billion years ago. But even though formation rates have been declining ever since, it seems that some galaxies are more likely than others to continue producing new stars.

Read more here.

The secrets of 3000 galaxies laid bare

Australian-led project sheds light on the evolution of the universe.

The seven-year SAMI Survey has allowed scientists to understand the complex interaction between thousands of galaxies. Their findings will help astronomers understand how the universe has evolved and how it might develop further.

The complex mechanics determining how galaxies spin, grow, cluster and die have been revealed following the release of all the data gathered during a massive seven-year astronomy research project led by scientists at the University of Sydney.

The astronomers observed 13 galaxies at a time, building to a total of 3068, using a custom-built instrument called the Sydney-AAO Multi-Object Integral-Field Spectrograph (SAMI), connected to the 4-metre Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) at Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales. The telescope is operated by the Australian National University.

Read more here.

Australian invention will see ‘transformational’ scaling up of quantum computers, experts say

Australian researchers have unveiled an invention being hailed as “the first decent pick and shovel” in the “gold rush” to develop large quantum computers.

The device potentially opens the door for quantum computers with thousands of qubits — the building blocks of quantum computing — while the most advanced current models have a few dozen.

This, in turn, could eventually lead to scientific advances that translate into better medicines or more accurate climate and financial system models.

The research, published in the journal Nature Electronics, describes a new way of approaching one of the great limits to scaling up quantum computers: heat.

Read more here.

In brief

Fusion energy start-up HB11 Energy launched to accelerate German-Australian physicist Heinrich Hora’s vision of clean, safe and abundant fusion energy

Physicists to look for quantum time dilation inside nuclear reactor

Jobs Corner – physics employment opportunities

The AIP is happy to provide a free link to your physics-related job or PhD opportunity. Please send them to If you would like to feature more details and a picture, please email Kirrily Rule for more information and pricing. 

CSIRO Postdoctoral Fellow in Pulsar Astronomy

Postdoctoral Fellow (Theoretical/Computational Soft Condensed Matter) Uni Adelaide

Research Associate / Research Fellow (CryoTEM) Uni WA

Research Assistant in Biomaterials RMIT

Technical officer Nuclear Physics ANU

3D Imaging and Visualisation Technician


University of Melbourne

STEM Curriculum Design Specialist Monash College

Battery Experimentalist – Fabrication & Evaluation CSIRO Melbourne

Physics and Science Teacher (one of 20+ such positions on SEEK)

Quantitative Analyst

Data scientist (one of 10+ such positions in SEEK)

Principal Scientist/Engineer Victoria University of Wellington, NZ

PhD/MSc opportunities:

CSIRO/RMIT Masters by Research

The Vienna Doctoral School in Physics is offering 11 fully funded PhD positions in Physics based at the University of Vienna, Austria:

QUT PhD Scholarship in Physics-informed Lattice Boltzmann Modelling