Lasers and burps, a four degree catastrophe, fusion in five years, Chu at the Press Club and more

Australian Institute of Physics, Australian Institute of Physics Congress, Media bulletins

Coming up next week:

Fusion power in five years, 30 years or never; dark matter in a gold mine; lasers and burps, eleven dimensions, the worldwide spider web, and much more at the biennial physics congress in Canberra opening Monday morning.

And today – How obesity causes hypertension, a Monash paper in Cell

We also have five free tickets for journalists to see James Randi in Melbourne tonight at 6pm at the Convention Centre.

The physics conference highlights include:

  • The catastrophe of a four degree temperature rise. Steve Sherwood’s work on clouds suggests it’s more likely. But are they listening in Lima?
  • At the National Press Club Steven Chu on prudent management of risks of climate change with continued economic growth.
  • Looking for dark matter in the Stawell Gold Mine
  • Why we need 11 dimensions, and physics librettos – Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall
  • Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist at the University of Arizona, who thinks Lisa’s ideas are far too complex, and also wrote The Physics of Star Trek
  • Women in physics are still going backwards – in schools, and academia in Australia. Speakers tell us how bad it is. Then UK physics leader Frances Saunders will tell us how to fix it
  • A portable synchrotron? The $200 million Australian Synchrotron’s X-ray microscopes are amazing. A Monash physicist thinks he can create a lab bench sized X-ray microscope.
  • The sound of a dozen birds – a system that can recognise any sound is being used to track the elusive orange-bellied parrot and can follow twelve songs at once – bird, fish, whale, human…
  • The beauty and serendipity of blue sky research – Serge Haroche from the College De France, who won a Nobel for trapping photons between super-reflective mirrors
  • Brian Schmidt from the ANU, whose Nobel-winning discovery that the expansion of the Universe was accelerating won his team the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics last month.

It’s Australia’s biennial physics congress—this year, it’s in Canberra from 7 to 11 December. Here are some of the highlights. All stories are embargoed until presentation at the conference.

There’s more information on some of these below and much more at

At the National Press Club

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

Steven Chu, former Obama energy advisor and 1997 Nobel laureate, will discuss the global energy and climate challenge, the reinvention of the microscope, and when science matters—culminating in a National Press Club address on Wednesday, 10 December. He’s an advocate of urgent transition from fossil fuels to nuclear and renewable energy to combat climate change. Chu’s time will be limited—contact Phil Dooley at ANU for interviews +61 (2) 6125-5575, +61 478 337 740,

Fusion in five years, 30 years or never?

UK atomic energy guru Steve Cowley will tell us where we really are with fusion.
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. Steve Cowley from the UK Atomic Energy Authority can explain where we are in the hunt for the Holy Grail of cheap, clean fusion energy, and the likelihood we’ll achieve it.

Laser tracking of cattle burps

Livestock burp up around ten per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. There are ways to reduce this, but how do you measure their success? New technology to measure cows’ breath out in the field is being developed that could provide the answer. Brian Orr from Macquarie University, and his colleagues from CSIRO, are developing lasers that can be used in cattle yards and open ranges to detect the concentration of methane and ammonia molecules, as well as other gases that could be useful indicators of animal health.

Quickest times could win a Nobel

Strobe lights and camera flashes have let us capture the motion of galloping horses and speeding bullets, but 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.

World wide spider web—spinning natural fibre optics

Anyone who’s stumbled into spider webs knows how transparent they are, and now Douglas Little from 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.

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, were 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.

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 reveal exactly how the 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 that could be used for training, ball testing or boot analysis.

And the Cell paper

We’re not handling the story but it’s significant—How obesity causes hypertension
A Monash University-led study has discovered that the hormone leptin which is secreted by fat cells is significantly elevated following weight gain and in obesity, acts in the brain to elevate blood pressure. Results in animals and humans demonstrated that both blocking leptin from producing its actions in the brain and removal of the leptin receptors from the brain were effective at for the reducing obesity induced hypertension. As much as 80% of common hypertension is caused by excess body fat, and this study for the first time describes the mechanism by which obesity elevates blood pressure, and opens up new approaches to treat obesity induced high blood pressure.

Lead author and media contact: Michael Cowley, +61 432 866 738,

Conference media contacts
Niall Byrne 0417 131 977
Errol Hunt 0423 139 210
Margie Beilharz 0415 448 065

Science in Public

We’re always happy to help put you in contact with scientists. Our work is funded by the science world—from the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes to Nature. We’re keen to suggest interesting people and stories—and not just those of our clients’.

If you’re looking for ideas or people for features we know hundreds of science prize winners past, present, and future and are always happy to chew the fat about the developing themes in Australian science.

Feel free to pass these stories along to colleagues. And between bulletins, you can follow me on Twitter (@scienceinpublic) for more science news and story tips.

Kind regards,

Niall Byrne

Creative Director

Science in Public

03 9398 1416, 0417 131 977