The Giant Magellan Telescope and rewarding our own physics stars: physics in July

The AIP welcomes the announcement, made last week, of 50 new ARC Future Fellowships. These provide crucial support for our very best mid-career researchers, who are key to the long-term health of Australian science. There’s more on the Fellowships later in this bulletin.

It was also wonderful to have the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) in Chile given the go-ahead by its 11 international partners, which include Australia – represented by the ANU and Astronomy Australia Limited. The GMT will be the world’s largest optical/infrared telescope, with ten times the resolving power of the Hubble Space Telescope. More on this from ANU astronomer Matthew Colless later in this bulletin.

And while on the topic of major international astronomy research facilities, it was great to see the leaders of the Murchison Widefield Array Project – the precursor to the low frequency component of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) – be awarded one of the 2015 Thomson Reuters Citation Awards, in recognition of their significant contribution made to an emerging research area.

For a different type of star, we announced AIP prizes recognising the best physics PhDs of 2014 and 2015, rewarding two stellar young researchers in the fields of laser-based measurement and quantum computing. We also recognised excellence in physics research in the five years prior to 2014 – in the field of early-Universe galaxy evolution. More information on these prizes below.

And finally, congratulations go from the AIP to Physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, who will become ANU’s 12th Vice Chancellor at the beginning of next year.


Warrick Couch
President, Australian Institute of Physics

Giant Magellan Telescope

Australia’s role in global observatory networks has been further enhanced by an agreement that the ANU and Astronomy Australia will help build and run what will be the world’s largest, most sensitive optical telescope, the US$1 billion Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) in Chile.

The GMT will use seven giant mirrors, each 8 metres across, to produce images ten times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing us to view even more distant objects and thus look even further back in time. Wendy Freedman, chair of the GMTO Board, says the GMT “will herald the beginning of a new era in astronomy. It will reveal the first objects to emit light in the Universe, explore the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter, and identify potentially habitable planets in the Earth’s galactic neighbourhood.”

Already, Australia has the go-ahead to host one node of the world’s largest radio-wavelength telescope program, the Square Kilometre Array, which has nodes here and in South Africa. ANU astronomer Matthew Colless said the optical GMT would complement the SKA by allowing astronomers to look directly at stars and planets: “Radio telescopes see cold hydrogen gas out of which stars and galaxies form, but they don’t really see the stars themselves,” Prof Colless said. “The Giant Magellan Telescope will provide astronomers and astrophysicists with the opportunity to truly transform our view of the universe and our place within it.”

ARC Future Fellows

Funding rules for the next round of ARC Future Fellowships have recently been released, with applications for 50 fellowships opening this week.

The four-year Fellowships give mid-career researchers the job certainty necessary to continue advancing work that benefits Australia. As noted by Michael Crichton and Maggie Hardy from the University of Queensland earlier this year, the ARC Future Fellowships are the only remaining funding program specifically for mid-career researchers, which makes them essential to the long-term viability of Australian research and innovation.

Details regarding the Fellowships are available on the ARC website.


Physics stars rewarded: best PhDs and excellence in research

Australian physicists have been recognised for

  • laser-based measurement of distances smaller than a billionth of a millimetre
  • jump-starting single-atom, silicon-based quantum computing
  • unlocking the secrets of the first galaxies to form after the Big Bang.

The AIP’s Bragg Gold Medal for best physics PhD thesis (2014) has been awarded to the ANU’s Andrew Sutton for new laser-ranging and interferometry techniques that are already being picked up by NASA and the European Space Agency.

The 2015 Bragg Gold Medal has been awarded to UNSW’s Jarryd Pla, for research that has been described as a turning point for silicon-based quantum computing.

The 2014 Walter Boas Medal for excellence in physics research has been awarded to the University of Melbourne’s Stuart Wyithe, who is delving into one of the biggest questions in physics: the evolution of the Universe’s first galaxies following the Big Bang.

The impressive research behind all three prizes is described on the AIP website.

Nominations for the AIP’s 2015 physics prizes closed this week. However the NSW community outreach award remains open until 9 October. The Award recognises notable contribution to physics education or community engagement and a demonstrated passion for the study of physics.

Women in Physics lecture tour

The 2015 Women in Physics lecture tour is taking shape, with the following tentative dates for this year’s Women in Physics lecturer, Jodie Bradby (pictured).

  • Victoria 5–7 August
  • Tasmania 10–12 August
  • South Australia 19–20 August
  • NSW 24–27 August
  • WA 16 September
  • Queensland 14–15 (and possibly 16) October

The AIP’s Helen Maynard-Casely has interviewed Jodie for the Women in Physics blog. We include an excerpt below, and you can read the full interview here.

HMC: One of your areas of expertise is in nanoindentation, can you tell us a little about that?
Certainly! Nanoindentation is essentially a method to measuring how things deform when you poke them. And, as the prefix ‘nano’ suggests, we can do this at really small scales. How small? Well a nanometre is mind-bogglingly small. So small it’s basically impossible for the human brain to visualise. We are talking about the scale of atoms – a single gold atom is about one third of a nanometre. The nanoindenter is an instrument that uses a specially shaped diamond to ‘poke’ materials at a nanoscale.

This lets us measure the mechanical properties of materials at this small scale. One of the fascinating quirks of nature is that as the scale of objects shrinks down to the nanoscale, their physical properties actually change. So something that is ‘soft’ at a normal human length scale might actually be quite ‘hard’ at the nanoscale.

National Science Week

Australia’s annual celebration of all things science and tech runs from 15 to 23 August.

Physics will be front and centre this year, with events such as:

  • talks by astrophysicist, author and presenter of CosmosNeil deGrasse Tyson
  • astronaut and YouTube sensation Chris Hadfieldpresenting ‘A Spaceman’s View of the Planet’
  • school activities under this year’s theme of International Year of Light
  • this year’s national experiment: ‘Galaxy Explorer’ will invite all Australians to contribute to the classification of galaxies to increase understanding of their evolution.

If you are thinking of running any physics events yourself, the first step is to register the event on the National Science Week website. You’ll then be sent information to help you publicise your event. If you think your event has strong media potential, email the National Science Week team at


Physics rises to the top

Nobel Laureate, astrophysicist Brian Schmidt (pictured) will take over the reins as Vice Chancellor of the ANU from 1 January 2016. Brian will put on hold his research at the ANU’s Mt Stromlo Observatory and Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Brian says he aims to boost the ANU’s research profile and “focus on outreach, devising policy for the nation, and working with business and institutions like CSIRO”.

You can click here to watch the press conference announcing Brian’s appointment.

New planet is too big, too close, too ‘puffy’

ANU researchers have found an exoplanet 500 light years away with some very unusual characteristics. First, it’s orbiting very close to its host star for its size: with a mass similar to that of Saturn, the planet would be expected to orbit at a similar distance from its star – say, half to three-quarters of a billion km out. Instead, HATS-6b orbits at just over 5 million km, ten times closer than Mercury in our own system, and completes each orbit in just over three days.

But, even more surprisingly, the planet is extremely massive for its host star, which is a small red dwarf only two-thirds the mass of our own Sun. As researcher George Zhou explains, “Planets are formed from the leftover material of star formation. In this case, there shouldn’t have been enough material left after the formation of such a small star to form such a big planet.”

And finally, the planet seems almost ‘puffy’ in composition – only a third as dense as Jupiter.

George used data from the Magellan telescope in Chile and the ANU’s 2.3 m telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, and worked with Western Australian planet hunter T.G. Tan.

Curiosity and tenacity reveals giant plasma tubes

Sydney University undergrad, Cleo Loi (pictured) applied a bit of creative genius to data from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope in Western Australia to identify and image giant, invisible moving tubes of plasma600km high in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Her approach led to some radical results that were met with some scepticism at first. “No one had looked at the data in this way before,” said Ms Loi, an astrophysics student at the Centre for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO). “A lot of the people were pretty convinced it was some problem with the imaging, that it was nothing to get excited about”.

Fortunately, she persevered. “I guess being a student and being a bit stubborn, I was so curious.”

Existence of the plasma tubes, which are aligned along the Earth’s magnetic field, had been posited for decades, but this was the first time they had been visualised in such detail.

ARC laureates

The announcement of 15 new Australian Research Council Laureates last week included funding for some exciting physics:

Matthew Bailes (Swinburne University of Technology) is pursuing a supercomputing solution for the SKA precursor telescopes in Australia and South Africa.

Lisa Kewley (ANU) is combining new theoretical models and 3D technology to trace how the building blocks of life—carbon, oxygen and nitrogen—formed and evolved from the infant universe.

Ping Koy Lam (ANU) is using precision lasers to levitate large objects, developing a highly controllable, extremely sensitive new tool that could be used for gravity sensing and may assist in mineral exploration and environmental sensing. Ping is a previous recipient of the AIP’s Bragg Gold Medal for best physics PhD.

Steven Sherwood (UNSW) is studying the contribution of clouds and atmospheric turbulence to climate change modelling and weather prediction.

Australian medical ultrasound physics recognised

AIP Fellow Christian Langton (pictured) of the Queensland University of Technology has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Eastern Finland in recognition of his work developing the technique of broadband ultrasonic attenuation (BUA) for quantitative assessment of osteoporosis. BUA has been internationally recognised as one of the most important scientific developments of the last 50 years.

Christian’s team at QUT has collaborated for a number of years with researchers at the University of Eastern Finland. He is currently applying his bone-ultrasound expertise to overcome the impediment of trans-cranial wave degradation associated with diagnostic and therapeutic interventions of the brain.

Tourism meets science

The Australian Astronomical Observatory’s Fred Watson spoke in Sydney last week on the potential of tourism ventures to expand the public’s appreciation of science. The talk, which was part of the AAO’s Colloquia series, is available online.

Fred also recently spoke about New Horizon’s Pluto fly-by on ABC radio.

Happy aphelion

And to complete a space-filled bulletin, here’s a chance for some mid-winter ‘did you know’ physics with friends and family: On 6 July the Earth passes aphelion, or its furthest point from the Sun – five million km further out than at perihelion in January.

(No, Uncle Bob, that’s not why we have seasons.)

And according to Kepler’s 2nd law, that means we’re now moving our slowest – about 1 km/s slower than in January—which is why the southern hemisphere winter is 4½ days longer than its summer.