The Women in Physics lecturer is…; Stargazing world record; and more physics in June

AIP President’s blog, Australian Institute of Physics, Bulletins

It gives me great pleasure to once again welcome a renowned physicist to Australia for the AIP’s annual Women in Physics lecture tour—and this year we’ve chosen Dr Ceri Brenner from the Central Laser Facility at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, UK.

Ceri is a high-power laser plasma physicist who works alongside industry, translating her research on the fourth state of matter, into practical real-world applications in medicine, aerospace and more. She’s also a passionate science communicator who I am sure will inspire audiences around the country. More on that below.

Physics also made quite a mark on the media in the past month. Not only was rockstar physicist Brian Cox making the media rounds, but ANU also managed to achieve literally record-breaking numbers of people turning their eyes to the sky for their successful Guinness World Record attempt.

We’ll have another huge physics name down under in September. Kip Thorne has announced a string of tour dates, be sure to support the industry and grab a ticket when they go on sale on 22 June. He’ll be supported by local star of Swinburne astronomy Alan Duffy and comedian Robin Ince.

Some of Australia’s best and brightest physicists were also elected into the Australian Academy of Science Fellowship, one of the highest scientific honours in Australia. Be sure to read all about them, and head to our Facebook page to offer your congratulations. Meanwhile the next generation were representing at FameLab Australia and in the Physics Olympiad.

I’d also like to once again pay tribute to Brian James, who for the past five years has brought his expertise and indefatigable enthusiasm to editing our member journal, Australian Physics. This month’s edition was his last and I’d like to thank him again for his efforts, which were recognised with an AIP award for Outstanding Service to Physics earlier this year. Brian will continue his involvement with the AIP, and his enormous mission to digitise all previous editions of Australian Physics—he’s 30 per cent there already.

Although it’s a shame to lose Brian’s expertise, I’m excited to see what the new editors Peter Kappen—Principal Scientist, X-ray absorption spectroscopy at the Australian Synchrotron (ANSTO)—and David Hoxley—applied nanotechnology researcher at La Trobe Uni—bring to the role. To use David’s own words, they’ve got “big shoes to fill!”

Lastly, nominations for AIP awards and medals closed on 1 June. Keep an eye out for the announcement of our winners. I can’t wait to see the talent we uncover this year.

Kind Regards,

Andrew Peele
President, Australian Institute of Physics

AIP News

Innovation with the most powerful lasers in the world

Meet our 2018 Women in Physics lecturer Dr Ceri Brenner from the Central Laser Facility (CLF) at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, UK.

Ceri Brenner is a plasma physicist and innovator who uses the most powerful lasers in the world to study what happens when extreme bursts of light come into contact with matter and is using this knowledge to design new X-ray technology that can see through steel! The extreme physics she studies can also be applied for understanding supernova explosions in space or how we can ignite a star on earth for clean electricity generation.

When Ceri shines the CLF’s super-intense lasers at a solid, liquid or a gas, they super-heat to millions of degrees in less than a trillionth of a second and rip apart the material structure to transform into plasma—the fourth state of matter.

Ceri and her team of collaborators from universities across the UK are working out how to use the beams of particles and x-rays that are flung out of the laser-plasma for real life applications in improving and speeding up important imaging technology in healthcare, aerospace, nuclear and advanced engineering. She’s currently leading a project to demonstrate how high-power lasers can be used for scanning nuclear waste containers to give 3D maps of the hazardous material inside. She’s also looking at how to use laser-driven beams of anti-matter to detect teeny tiny defects below the surface of materials used on airplanes. And her previous work was on laser-driven particle beams for cancer therapy.

In 2017 she was awarded the UK Institute of Physics’ Clifford-Paterson Medal and Prize for her significant early career contributions to the application of physics in an industrial context.

Aside from her love of lasers and innovation, Ceri spends her time inspiring the public and next generation to become engaged with physics and to see it as a cultural enjoyment. She is particularly fond of exploring the overlaps in science and art and how these two professions require creativity, innovation and an inquisitive mind.

She partnered with science art agency Super/Collider to design a range of beer mats that featured photos of plasmas captured high power laser interactions. They’ve been spread far and wide across the UK and have even reached Australia. She’s also been working with London-based artist Alistair McClymont, who has created artwork inspired by his time working on Ceri’s experiment with the Vulcan laser.

The Vulcan and Gemini lasers at the CLF are able to recreate conditions in the laboratory that can normally only be found in space—allowing them to explore the physics of extreme astrophysical bodies, such as the centre of stars and planets. They’ve even created a miniature supernova explosion.

Another interesting research area is in figuring out how we can ignite a star on earth, as a way of providing an energy source for fusion reactors. Fusion power has long been touted as source of power which does not rely on fossil fuels, helping us to combat climate change and energy security. But to date no-one has found a viable way of powering these fusion reactions. High power lasers are a way to compress and heat deuterium–tritium fusion fuel to five times the temperature of the sun to initiate reactions and keep the process going to energise a power station.

Ceri contributes to physics outreach wherever she can, through radio, TV, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, public talks and campaign groups. She is a speaker for the New Scientist Live event series, the Physics in Action school talk series and is a regular speaker for the UK’s Institute of Physics public and teacher events.

Women in Physics lecture tour

Dr Ceri Brenner will visit Tasmania, Perth, Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra, Queensland and Victoria as the 2018 AIP Women in Physics lecturer. Check the AIP site for updates.

Ceri Brenner has a knack for guiding the audience through the physics of her next generation technology and providing inspiration through the stories of innovation that will change our world.

In her talks she introduces high power lasers and the plasma (4th) state of matter and then guides the audience through to the application of the physics as a next generation technology. She introduces her topic in terms of physics concepts that everyone learns at school making it accessible to all.

She often mentions her career journey and communicates the personal benefits (global travel, intellectual stimulation, feeling of contributing to society) of a career in physics to inspire the next generation of physicists. One of the reasons Ceri feels so strongly about effective public outreach is due to her own experiences as a student.

“I was never quite sure what I wanted to aim for in terms of a specific career and that was one of the main reasons why I stuck with physics, as it kept so many career options open to me.

“One thing for sure, though, was that I never imagined I would become a physicist and didn’t even really think of it as a profession until getting to university.

“This is one of the reasons why I think it’s really valuable to portray to young people the various types of careers available in science, technology and innovation as I really didn’t come across it in my schooling but it’s a career that delivers a whole heap of benefits that I would have strived for, had I known.”

Who will be the 2019 Women in Physics lecturer? That’s up to you

We’re calling on outstanding physicists working in Australia to put their hand up to travel the country and inspire audiences with their science in 2019.

In previous years we’ve had 2017 Australian of the Year, Michelle Simmons; our very own Vice President, Jodie Bradbury; and astronomy superstar Katie Mack.

To nominate, you need to have made a significant contribution to the field, have a demonstrated public speaking ability, and be available to tour the country in 2019.

If you fit the bill, or know someone who does, be sure to nominate before 1 August 2018.

Further details can be found on the AIP website.

BIG name, presenting BIG physics, at BIG science

Dr Richard Garratt who was instrumental in the development, construction and operation of the Australian Synchrotron, and who received an award last year for his contributions to the world-class facility will be speaking at the BIG Science event later this month.

The Synchrotron accelerates electrons to almost the speed of light—producing a light about a million times brighter than the sun—which can be used to observe materials on a sub-microscopic level. The Synchrotron has uses in medical technology like assistance with X-ray images. This leading research site would not have been possible without Richard’s influence in the early stages.

On the 26 June at BIG Science, Richard will explore the future of the world’s most exiting and challenging science developments at the ANSTO Discovery Centre. The event is free, but bookings are essential.

Last chance to submit abstracts for AIP Congress; get involved with industry and equity

Our AIP Congress in Perth, 9-13 Dec, is fast approaching—we’re already in the second half of the year! Get involved to make the congress the big Australian Physics event we all want it to be.

Right now, we’re seeking input and ideas on the following topics:

Equity Workshop: We are excited to announce Maureen Frank, chief disruption officer for Emberin will be presenting a workshop in diversity and inclusion. The workshop will bring award-winning solutions for building inclusive culture, and action plans on driving change in academia.

Nominate invited speakers: Organisers are in the final phases of selecting invited speakers for the Congress. There will be about 100 sessions, with an invited speaker each. If you know someone deserving of a nomination, please send an email to Stuart Midgley. Keeping in mind the AIP’s commitment to gender balance in your suggestions, consider nominating your deserving female colleagues.

Focus on industry: The AIP is shining a bright light on ‘Physics in Industry’ at the Congress, there will be a special session with speakers from industry, and an “I’m a Physicist” campaign, profiling industry physicists on posters and screen backgrounds around the Congress. If you’re working in industry, or if any of your graduates have moved to industry, we’d love to hear from you. Please send your suggestions to Stuart Midgley

And of course, be sure to submit your own abstract for presentation. Abstract submission is open until 15 June 2018.

Be sure to encourage your postdocs, students and international collaborators to attend! For more information and abstract submissions, check out the Congress website.

Other Physics News & Opportunities

Australia joins the international space economy

After the Federal Government’s budget announcement last month, it has been confirmed that a space agency will be funded and run here in Australia. The government has pledged $41 million to establish the space agency and will then contribute an amount starting at $26 million over the next four years.

While the initial amount might not seem like much, the funding is designed to establish and assist with running the agency in its early stages. Given that space is a $420 billion industry, there won’t be any shortage of cash flow. The space agency will encourage commercial space flight and give start-ups a boost, by providing financial support and industry knowledge.

While we’re still waiting for the official word on where the space agency will be located, there’s strong speculation that it will be situated in the nation’s capital—although South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory are all contenders. The agency is expected to create thousands of jobs, making the location announcement understandably anticipated. Australia is one of the only developed nations without a space agency, so we’ll now be able to join the global effort with the likes of Canada and New Zealand.

“We can now couple our skills and expertise in space with our excellence in quantum technologies, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems to become a world leader in many existing and new aspects of the international space economy,” said Michael Frater, Rector of UNSW Canberra

Australia’s late entry to the party isn’t entirely a bad thing, and might even work to our advantage, according to Professor Anton van den Hengel, Director of the Australian Institute for Machine Learning at the University of Adelaide. He notes that space exploration is becoming cheaper at an unprecedented rate, we’re able to reuse some of the stuff we send into space and a heap of research is already being conducted in the aeronautical industry.

“Other countries have a significant head start in the hardware and software problems about spacecraft launch and control,” said Anton.

The agency will commence operations on 1 July this year, with former Chief Executive of CSIRO, Megan Clark, at its head for the first year. Megan’s position in the top spot makes sense, given that she’s chair of the Expert Reference Group who reviewed Australia’s capability to engage in space exploration. The findings of their report consequently led to the government’s pledge to develop the space agency. Megan is a prominent member of the science community and is well respected by both industry and academia, there’s no doubt the Australian Space Agency will thrive under her leadership.

Vietnam one month, Portugal the next: physics can take you places

For one week in May nearly 200 secondary school students representing 25 countries descended on Hanoi, Vietnam for a week of tough physics exams, cultural exchange and fun at the 19th Asian Physics Olympiad (APhO).

Australia was represented by an eight-member team, and Stephen Catsamas (pictured far left) and Hugo McCahon-Boersma (second from right) both came home with bronze medals.

The Olympiad brings the region’s best and brightest teenagers together for nine days of academic competitions and cultural activities. The competition includes two 5-hour long exams of university standard (one theory and one practical).

The process for selecting the Australian team began in August 2017 when over 1,500 students from around the country sat the Australian Science Olympiad Exam in Physics. The 24 top-performing students then participated in summer school in ANU where they learnt the first-year of university physics squeezed into a mere two weeks.

The APhO team was selected on the basis of their performance at the summer school. Five of them will go on to represent Australia in the 49th International Physics Olympiad, in Lisbon, Portugal in July. Keep and eye on their Facebook page for the announcement on 18 June.

Then, in 2019 the Asian Physics Olympiad will be held in Australia for the first time.

Adelaide has been chosen as the host city thanks to the city’s support of science, innovation and education across all ages. Plenty of opportunity exists to be involved in this event, particularly for those with physics knowledge. Find out more info on the Australian Science Innovations website.

Scienceworks are focusing on physics in new exhibit

Twenty-seven scientists and engineers collaborated with local teenagers to develop a new permanent exhibit at Victoria’s Scienceworks—Beyond Perception: Seeing the Unseen.

The immersive gallery reveals the invisible forces that surround us such as gravitational waves, sound and light waves.

Experience Developer at Scienceworks, David Perkins said they wanted to ensure the exhibit was grounded in real world content, while revealing the latest in scientific and technological advances.

“We want to convey that science isn’t finished and that new discoveries which expand our understanding of the universe are being made all the time, right here in Melbourne and internationally. We want young adult visitors to walk away with a renewed sense of awe at the world they live in, the technology they use and feel inspired to become part of it.”

The exhibition is part of a $6 million gallery redevelopment, supported by the Victorian Government, aimed at igniting a lifelong engagement in STEM from babies to young adults.

Call for environmental radioactivity abstracts—closing soon

Australia’s biggest Environmental Radioactivity Research Conference is coming to Western Australia this November. Held in Perth over three days, the South Pacific Environmental Radioactivity Association (SPERA) Conference will feature a selection of local and international experts in the field of environmental radioactivity.

The conference is open to professionals, researchers and students and will cover all aspects of environmental radioactivity including new advances, new research and current work being conducted on contaminated sites and emergency preparedness.

If you feel you have something to contribute, the call for abstracts closes on 8 June. Find out more on their website.

Got an innovative idea, business model or research? Falling Walls deadline extended

Twenty Australian researchers, postdocs, students and innovators will be invited to present their research, business model, or initiative at the Shine Dome on 11 September.

The competition is open to researchers of any discipline. Participating scientists are required to present their work in a three-minute slot to an audience from science and industry, addressing the question, “Which walls will fall next?”

The winner—selected for having the most promising and innovative idea—will be automatically admitted to the finale in Berlin on 8 November 2018, with their travel expenses and accommodation during the event covered.

The call for applications to present in Falling Walls Lab 2018 has just been extended to 5pm (AEST) Tuesday 12 June 2018.

To find out more and to apply, visit the AAS website.

The Falling Walls Foundation is a non-profit organisation in Berlin, dedicated to the support of science and the humanities. It was established in 2009, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At its heart is the question ‘Which are the next walls to fall?’ as a result of scientific, technological, economic and sociological breakthroughs.

(Our knowledge of the Universe) can only get better

Particle physicist and rockstar Brian Cox has been busy of late with the return of ABC’s Stargazing Live which aired over three nights from 22-24 May.

The tour kicked off with Australia’s Science Channel’s ‘In Class With’ series which allowed students from over 300 classrooms throughout the nation to ask Brian their most imaginative science questions. Topics ranged from biological and chemical sciences to earth and physical sciences. You can catch up on the series here.

Broadcasting over three nights from Siding Spring Observatory, Stargazing Live introduced audiences to a team of scientists, including: Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith, who showcased the capabilities of different telescopes; ‘Space Gandalf’ Greg Quicke, who showed live views of Jupiter and Saturn; and Professor Alan Duffy from Swinburne University.

Another feature of Stargazing Live also made a come-back; the citizen science project, which last year led to the discovery by viewers of a new solar system. This year, the audience was asked to help classify more than 18,000 images to help find type Ia supernovae and in turn, revise the age of the cosmos.

Viewers contributed to over 1.7 million classifications, completing months of work in merely a few hours. The findings helped the team estimate a new age for the Universe, which puts the cosmos 500,000 years older than previously expected.

A(nother) Guinness World Record for ANU

To top it all off, on Wednesday 23 May, a Guinness World Record was broken by Australian National University, Stargazing Live with more than 40,000 participants at 285 stargazing parties all over Australia simultaneously observed the moon through telescopes for 10 minutes.

The previous record was set by ANU in 2015 and consisted of under 8,000 participants.

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki accepted the Guinness World Record in Brisbane and every registered participant will receive their own certificate from Guinness World Records.

“It’s great to break the world record for the number of people stargazing simultaneously, but I think this is only half the story,” said Brian Cox.

“The real value is that many thousands of Australians have been introduced to the wonders of the night sky, and many of those will be children.

“They will develop a lifelong interest in astronomy and science, and the impact of that will be felt in decades to come.

“Perhaps the first Australian to walk on Mars will have been inspired by this spectacular night.”

Five physicists elected to Australian Academy of Science

A quarter of the Fellows elected to the Academy of Science in 2018 were physicists, reflecting both the strength of physics in Australia, and its recognition by the Academy.

The Academy has a rich physics history—the founding president in 1954 was Sir Mark Oliphant, who was well known for the co-discovery of nuclear fusion and contributions to the development of microwave radar.

The Australian Academy of Science is a Fellowship of the nation’s most distinguished scientists, all of whom have been elected by their peers for outstanding contributions to their fields.

Congratulations to the following researchers elected in 2018:

Rachel Webster Our very first Women in Physics lecturer in 1997, Rachel is an esteemed astrophysicist who specialises in gravitational lensing, which involves identifying the curve in spacetime made by matter, and the resulting deflection of light. Rachel is a fellow of the Australian Institute of Physics and currently heads the astrophysics group at the University of Melbourne and a Chief Investigator at the Melbourne node of the national ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).

David Blair is an experimental physicist who pioneered three separate areas of precision measurement science to help us “hear” the sounds of the universe. David played an integral role in the detection of the first gravitational waves with both his precision science and his leadership in a team of researchers who contributed to the LIGO discovery in 2015.

Lloyd Hollenberg is a quantum physicist who has dedicated his time to Australia’s efforts in the quantum race, including creating the ‘blueprints’ for a full-scale silicon quantum computer and contributions to advances in diamond sensors. Lloyd is also an advocate for the public promotion of physics.

Dacheng Tao has realised that artificial intelligence will change the world. In fact, he’s already received multiple prizes for his applied algorithms in face recognition, autonomous driving, web image search and activity analysis.

Veena Sahajwalla is turning trash into treasure and directing the Sustainable Materials Research and Technology Centre at UNSW. Veena is revolutionising recycling science by transforming rubbish into ‘green materials’ and developing new steelmaking technologies which utilise waste tyres otherwise destined for landfill.

You can read the full list of Fellows here.

Poking plants, the ORGAN experiment & solar windows in #scicomm competition final

Three physicists were among the 2018 FameLab Australia finalists who presented their work to a live audience on stage in Perth last month.

  • Toby Hendy from the ANU was named as runner-up for her research: Poking plants. Toby pricks plants with needles to understand how they defend themselves against disease. Her research led her to discover a new minimum pressure which triggers a defence response in the plant, stiffening of the cell wall. Toby’s research has the potential to create resistant crops and would consequently decrease world food shortages.
  • Ben McAllister from ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQuS) and the University of Western Australia presented his research: The ORGAN Experiment: Shining a light on dark matter. Demonstrating his outstanding communication skills, Ben took three-minutes to explain the biggest mystery of the universe—dark matter.
  • Pegah Maasoumi from ARC Centre of Excellence for Exciton Science the ANU plans to supply cheap solar energy and help combat global warming with her work on solar windows. Pegah’s research could lead toward every window or sound barrier on the highway acting as a solar cell by harvesting the sun’s light.

The Australian final was won by Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University who uses drones to collect whale snot. She’ll present her work at the international final in the UK.

Read more about the finalists and their work here.

Ever thought of becoming a rheologist? Well, there’s a grant for that.

Applications are now open for the ASR Howard See Future Rheologist Travel Award. The award offers $2,500 to future rheologists, to help in their travel costs to present a paper at a conference of their choice.

The Australian Society of Rheology are offering this biennial award to advance the career of one lucky recipient by sending them on a once-in-a-career opportunity to present their research to experts in the field.

The award is open to all future rheologists studying in Australia. Applications close 30 August 2018. Check out the website for further details.