Gravitational waves and an influx of fresh, new members: physics in March

AIP President’s blog, Australian Institute of Physics

What a fantastically exciting month it has been with the announcement of the first transient gravitational wave event due to a binary black hole merger. This will surely go down as one of the most significant discoveries in physics over the last century.

Some of the Australian researchers involved in the discovery are acknowledged in an article in this bulletin. It was also great to see how many took the opportunity in the weeks following the announcement to reach out to a curious public.

I’m pleased this month to be able to announce an exciting AIP membership initiative. With a view to refreshing membership, and exposing a new generation of physicists to the work of the AIP, we are introducing a new, free, electronic-only student membership category. We believe this introduction of new blood will help set the AIP up in the strongest possible position in the long term. More later in the bulletin.

Leading up to the AIP Congress in December, we profile the first speaker to be announced in this month’s bulletin: 2015 Nobel-winning physicist Takaaki Kajita. We’ll be sharing more Congress news each month from now on.

I have been in Canberra this week for Science Meets Parliament, with 200 scientists meeting media, policymakers, and parliamentarians. What a successful event it was, not just for these interactions, but also for the excellent speeches delivered by Minister Pynne, the Leader of the Opposition, and the new Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, on the importance of science and innovation to Australia’s future.

And finally, congratulations to AIP Fellow Tanya Monro, who has been appointed to the CSIRO Board. Her experience as a board member and chairperson, and advocacy for links between research and industry will serve the national science body well.

Warrick Couch
President, Australian Institute of Physics

Student AIP membership

The demographic of the AIP membership is very much skewed toward the senior end of the spectrum, and the Executive is keen to attract younger members. For this reason, we are pleased to be rolling out a new Student Membership category for undergraduate students (including Honours students).

This is a free, electronic-only membership, in which students will receive the President’s monthly bulletin, an electronic copy of the Australian Physics magazine, and information from their local AIP Branch about events being held.

They will not have voting rights. Upon graduation, they will be invited to become full Members of the AIP (MAIP). By then we hope they will have gained an appreciation of some of the work the AIP does in terms of lobbying for physics in Australia and representing professional physicists.

Postgraduate students are entitled to apply for full Membership, paying a reduced student membership rate, and also have access to benefits such as travel funds and reduced rates for the Congress.

We will be working with the physics department in each university to promote membership. Enquiries to, and if you want to encourage students to apply, send them here.

Gravitational waves: the Australian connection

Last month researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced they had successfully detected gravitational waves for the first time.

More than a thousand scientists from 16 countries and over 80 institutions played their part in the discovery, including, from Australia:

  • Researchers at the Australian National University developed the mirror-tilt systems that allow LIGO’s lasers to be steered so accurately. The ANU’s David McClelland is head of the Australian Partnership in Advanced LIGO.
  • David Blair’s Group at the University of Western Australia established the effect of high-powered laser light on mirror instability.
  • Andrew Melatos’s team at the University of Melbourne provided theoretical input and computer modelling, using supercomputers and smart algorithms to scour LIGO’s data.
  • Peter Veitch and colleagues as the University of Adelaide developed the optical sensors used to correct absorption-induced wavefront distortion of LIGO’s detectors, enabling the high sensitivity needed to detect signals that are only about one-thousandth of the width of a proton across.
  • Philip Charlton and researchers at Charles Sturt University worked on calibration of the LIGO detectors and data analysis development.
  • Monash University researcher Yuri Levin, with Kip Thorn at CalTech, helped identify the thermal noise that had to be addressed in the LIGO mirrors, while Eric Thrane and Paul Lasky studied LIGO data, characterising noise sources and searching for neutron star signals.
  • CSIRO polished and coated some of the Advanced LIGO’s mirrors—among the most uniform and precise such coatings ever made.

Immediately following the discovery in September last year, by prior arrangement, the location of the event was shared with over 60 teams of observers around the world, including here in Australia, allowing immediate observation right across the electromagnetic spectrum. Their observations were published this week, with over 1500 authors on the paper.

Congress news: neutrino Nobel Laureate to speak in Brisbane

The first of the overseas speakers for this year’s AIP Congress has been announced:

Takaaki Kajita was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics, jointly with Canadian physicist Arthur McDonald, for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, and that neutrinos have mass.

In 1998, Kajita’s research team found that when cosmic rays hit the Earth’s atmosphere, the resulting neutrinos switched between two flavours (from muon-neutrinos to tau-neutrinos) on their way through the atmosphere. The discovery helped prove the existence of neutrino oscillation and that neutrinos have mass.

Kajita and McDonald’s work solved the long standing ‘solar neutrino problem’—a major discrepancy between predicted and measured neutrino fluxes from the Sun. We wrote about the neutrino Nobel back in November.

This year’s AIP Congress will bring together physicists from Australia and the Asia Pacific region for a week-long program of plenary, keynote and contributed talks and networking. It will be held in Brisbane from 4 to 8 December in conjunction with the Asia–Pacific Physics Conference.

More information, and expressions of interest to attend or present at

Meeting co-chairs: Warrick Couch and Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop.

No strings attached: AIP discount for Brian Greene tour

Last week Columbia University string theorist Brian Greene was on the Late Show with Steve Colbert talking about gravitational waves. Next week he starts an Australian tour.

Brian Greene will be talking to audiences in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. AIP members receive a 10% discount on the ticket price, courtesy of the promoters Think Inc.

To receive the discount, type ‘AIP’ into the promo code box (Perth, Sydney) or password box (Melbourne) when purchasing via the following links: PerthSydneyMelbourne

AIP prizes

The following AIP medals and awards are now open for nomination:

  • The Harrie Massey Medal, which recognises contributions to physics made either by an Australian physicist or by a physicist working in Australia
  • The Alan Walsh Medal, which recognises significant contributions to industry by a practising physicist in Australia
  • The Walter Boas Medal, which recognises excellence in physics research in Australia (in the past five years)
  • The Education Medal, which recognises significant contributions to university physics education in Australia
  • The Bragg Gold Medal, which recognises the student who is judged to have completed the most outstanding PhD thesis in physics under the auspices of an Australian university
  • The award for Outstanding Service to Physics, which recognises an exceptional contribution to the furtherance of physics as a discipline on the part of an individual.
  • And our inaugural early-career research award, the Ruby Payne-Scott Medal, which recognises outstanding contributions made by a physicist who is just beginning their career.

More information can be found at or from Olivia Samardzic, Special Project Officer AIP, at or by phone on 08-7389 5035.

Nominations close 1 June (except for the Bragg Gold medal see website for details).

Also see more prizes listed under Other news, below.

Joint public lecture and dinner in Sydney

The AIP NSW Branch will hold a joint meeting with the Royal Society of New South Wales this month, featuring a public lecture by Ron Grunstein on the science of sleep and sleep medicine. It’s at 6 pm Wednesday 16 March at Trinity Grammar School, Summer Hill. Dinner will follow. More details on the physics events calendar.

Books for review

If you are interested in reviewing any of the books below for publication in Australian Physics please contact magazine editor Brian James.

Other prizes

The World Metrology Day awards for excellence in measurement science cover all areas of measurements—from pathology tests to traffic light colour; a myriad of fields where measurement underpins lives and productivity.  If you or people you know are making a mark in the world of measurement, submit a nomination here.  Nominations close 30 April.

Fresh Science is a national competition that selects early-career researchers with research results, an invention, or a discovery, trains them in how to tell their story, and helps them share their findings with the media and the public. Nominate now at Deadline 23 March.

Tall Poppies recognises excellence in early-career research, alongside a proven ability and passion to engage the community with science. Nominations close 11 April.

Australian Academy of Science Awards are open to scientists of all levels of experience. The Academy also offers research funding, conference funding and travel opportunities.  The closing date for award nominations is 30 April and the closing date to apply for research, conference and travel support is 15 June. See

The L’Oréal For Women in Science Fellowships recognise outstanding early-career female scientists and assists them in consolidating their careers and rising to leadership positions in science. Visit for more information.

Australia’s most comprehensive science prizes, the $160,000 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, recognise research, science communication and journalism, leadership, and students. Nominations close 6 May. More at

Most people who nominate for an award do so after encouragement from supervisors or peers. So encourage the physicists you know to nominate, or nominate them yourself.

What are you doing for National Science Week?

National Science Week 2016 is still six months away, but now is the time to plan events and activities that bring physics to the people, raise the hot topics, challenge the stereotypes and inspire the next generation.

Last year’s program saw an estimated 1.3 million people participate in over 1700 registered events around the country, including the national experiment Galaxy Explorer in which 18,000 people classified over 200,000 galaxies, and a record-breaking stargazing event at ANU.

It’s worth starting to think now about how you will use the broad reach of Science Week to your advantage. In particular, a new national citizen science project is needed. More at

Australian astronomers track FRB to source galaxy

A fast radio burst (FRB) was chased to its home galaxy for the first time, announced in a paper in Nature in February.

The international team, including astronomers from CSIRO and Swinburne University of Technology, triggered an alert after the radio-frequency burst was registered at Parkes. This allowed astronomers at optical and other telescopes around the world to hone in on the right part of the sky to identify the source, and look for effects in other wavelengths in the hours following the initial RF burst.

By confirming the distance via redshift to the source galaxy, the researchers could determine the density of material through which the FRB had passed in its six-billion light-year journey. Their observations matched theoretical predictions of the amount of ‘normal’ (or baryonic) material in the Universe, half of which is unobservable.

Ultra-thin graphene lens breaks diffraction limit

A new lens only 200 nm thick will allow imaging of living creatures as small as a single bacterium. The graphene-oxide lens was developed by Swinburne University of Technology and Monash University researchers, who used laser technology to shape the lens’s three concentric rings in a sprayed film of graphene oxide.

The strong, flexible and extremely lightweight lens will allow viewing of living, interacting organisms down to around 200 nm, below the Abbe diffraction limit (of half the wavelength of visible light, around 250 nm).

The new lens could replace the relatively bulky lenses now used in smartphones, and phones of the future may be able to produce thermal images that could assist in remote medical diagnosis.

Sharper vision finds closest dwarf stars are loners

A preliminary study hints that cool brown dwarfs may prefer to keep their own company.

UNSW PhD student Daniela Opitz has used the extremely sharp infra-red resolution of the Gemini South observatory in Chile to search for companions to the nearest, coolest brown dwarfs.

While binary stars are quite common among stars bigger than the Sun, none of the five cooler brown dwarfs Daniela studied has a close companion. The preliminary results confirm the pattern observed in warmer brown dwarves, and will inform future work at Gemini and other observatories.

Neutron imaging reveals opalised pearls

Opalised pearls dating from an ancient inland sea some 65 million years ago have been identified using neutron radiography at ANSTO near Sydney.

Neutron scanning allowed for imaging of the internal structure without damaging the gems, and detected their concentric structure (pictured), identifying them as pearls. The gems were unearthed at Coober Pedy and are now on display at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide.

Neutron tomography creates a 3D scan of the material, much like a hospital CT scan. Neutron radiography allows for better resolution of particular materials of similar density, which may not show up as clearly in an X-ray scan.

Physics shorts

AIP Fellow and University of South Australia DVC Tanya Monro has been named as the latest appointee on the CSIRO Board.

Quantum information systems researcher Michael Hall of the Centre for Quantum Dynamics at Griffith University has joined the Journal of Physics A editorial board.

CSIRO researchers have found that a jet of charged particles glowing in radio frequencies from an old star is held together by magnetic fields, offering clues as to what may have triggered the jet, and may be the early stages of the star becoming a planetary nebula.

The Square Kilometre Array, which will connect 36 separate radio antennae from Africa to Australia to create a scope with a total collecting area of one square kilometre has received EU funding of $8m to support infrastructure design activities.

Experimental quantum researcher Michael Biercuk of the Centre for Engineered Quantum Systems was one of four TED ‘Ideas that travel’ speakers on a Qantas flight last month. The talks will be rescreened during TEDxSydney in May.

The 2016 Victorian Physics Teachers Conference last month saw addresses on particle physics by Phillip Urquijo from the University of Melbourne and on cosmology by Emma Ryan-Weber from the Swinburne University of Technology. Their presentations are available on the Vicphysics website.

Quantum computing researcher Michelle Simmons (UNSW) and astrophysicist Tamara Davis (University of Queensland) were profiled in an ABC news article marking UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Following last week’s announcement of Australian investment, New Zealand will also invest $4.5m over the next three years in the Australian Synchrotron.

A ‘retired’ powerful, 4-Tesla MRI magnet from the Centre for Advanced Imaging at the University of Queensland has found a new lease of life at CERN in Europe. After powering the scanner at the forefront of Centre MRI research for the last 15 years, the 4-Tesla magnet will be refitted to help study the strong force that holds atomic nuclei together. The Centre for Advanced Imaging commissioned a new 7-Tesla ‘super scanner’ last year.


Reach a bigger audience. If your physics event isn’t listed here, ask us about adding it to the AIP calendar, having it included in these regular bulletins, and tweeted from the AusPhysics account.


Professor Tanya Monro: Unlocking the secrets within using light – from wine to embryos
Tue, 5 Apr 2016, 5:30pm
The Shine Dome, Canberra

New South Wales

Adult Astronomy Course: Understanding Relativity
Tue, 8 Mar 2016
Sydney Observatory

AAO Colloquium: A single prolific r-process event preserved in an ultra-faint dwarf galaxy
Thu, 10 Mar 2016, 11am
Australian Astronomical Observatory, North Ryde, Sydney

Sydney Ideas – The Energy Challenge: nanotechnology solutions towards sustainable development
Thu, 10 Mar 2016, 6pm
Messel Lecture Theatre, University of Sydney

Sydney Ideas – A Scientific Approach to Teaching Science and Engineering
Fri, 11 Mar 2016, 4:30pm
Charles Perkins Centre Auditorium

Introduction to Game Physics
Sat, 12 Mar 2016, 2pm
University of New South Wales, High Street, Kensington

Professor Ron Grunstein: From Snoring to Somnambulism – The Mystery of the Sleeping Brain
Wed, 16 Mar, 6pm

An Evening with Dr Brian Greene
Fri, 18 Mar, 6pm
Big Top Sydney

2016 CSIRO Alumni Scholarship Ceremony
Mon, 21 Mar, 2:45pm
CSIRO Lindfield

Northern Territory

No upcoming events currently listed.


Chasing down the comet
Fri, 11 Mar 2016, 12:30pm
Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Alien Life: Will we know it when we find it?
Sun, 13 Mar 2016, 12pm
Plaza Auditorium, Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre

South Australia

No upcoming events currently listed.


No upcoming events currently listed.


VCE Physics Day at Luna Park
29 February—4 March
Luna Park, St Kilda, Melbourne
For VCE physics students: Physics and fun riding Luna Park’s attractions. Exclusive access to Luna Park, with data loggers and accelerometers available to track your g-forces. Backed by AIP Education subcommittee worksheets and materials.

VCE Physics Lecture: Electromagnetism: From Ancient Greeks to Albert Einstein!
Thu, 3 Mar 2016, 6pm
Laby Theatre, University of Melbourne

Mount Burnett Observatory members night
4, 11, 18, 25 February (weekly)
420 Paternoster Road, Mount Burnett
Regular members nights which include invited talks, video lectures on astronomy, observing, and a guide to the night sky for the coming month. Stars, supper and socialising.

Into the heart of darkness: supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies
Thu, 10 Mar 2016, 6:30pm
Monash University, Clayton Campus

Lunar Mission One at Melbourne
Fri, 11 Mar 2016, 5:30pm
Copland Theatre, The Spot

Colloquium: Angular Momentum at the Heart of Galaxy Morphologies?
Thu, 17 Mar 2016, 11:30pm
Swinburne Virtual Reality Theatre

Astronomy lecture: Planets—From our Solar System to new Exoworlds
Fri, 18 Mar, 6:30pm
Swinburne University, Hawthorn

An Evening with Dr Brian Greene
At, 19 Mar 2016, 6pm
Melbourne Park Function Centre

Western Australia

Astrofest Perth 2016
Sat, 12 Mar 2016, 4:30pm
Curtin University

An Evening with Dr Brian Greene
Wed, 16 Mar 2016, 6pm
Astor Theatre