Summer reading: Physics Congress special edition

AIP President’s blog, Australian Institute of Physics

Welcome to 2017, and to a special edition of the AIP Bulletin where we are sharing with you some of the great stories from the Joint 13th Asia-Pacific Physics Conference and 22nd AIP Physics Congress (APPC-AIPC), held in Brisbane in December.

We also introduce the winners of last year’s AIP Prizes, who received their awards and medals at the Congress. More below. 

What I enjoyed most about this Congress was the breadth of physics covered, not just in terms of the diversity of areas but also new and emerging areas of physics as well as the more traditional ones. As well as hearing some outstanding talks by world-leading experts in these fields, it was also very heartening to be treated to many excellent talks by our younger ‘early-career’ physicists, indicating the future of Australian physics is very bright indeed! The strength of physics research being done in Australia is highlighted in the stories below.

You can read all of the stories from the Congress online at and see the highlights on Twitter at #BrisPhys16.

Holding the AIP Congress jointly with the Asia-Pacific Physics Conference was also a great pleasure, and it provided a terrific opportunity to engage with, and hopefully foster collaborations with, our Asia-Pacific colleagues. It also provided some unique opportunities, for example local Queensland school kids having the chance to meet Nobel Prize for Physics winner Professor Takaaki Kajita, thanks to the Queensland branch.


Warrick Couch
President, Australian Institute of Physics

AIP news

AIP award winners: are diamonds the future for quantum computing? And looking beyond the standard model

During the APPC-AIPC Congress in Brisbane, several scientists were recognised for their contributions to physics, both in and out of the lab.

The winners were:

The structure of everything—best PhD thesis shows us the glue inside protons and neutrons

2016 Bragg Gold Medal—Phiala Shanahan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr Phiala Shanahan works on understanding the structure of matter.

Using large-scale supercomputer simulations, she looks inside protons and neutrons to study how the fundamental quark and gluon constituents that make up the Universe form complex structures like atoms.

Her PhD—obtained at The University of Adelaide—on the Strangeness and Charged Symmetry Violation in the Nucleon, has been awarded the 2016 Bragg Medal for best PhD thesis of the year by the AIP. According to one of her reviewers, the thesis “stands alone in the impact of the research, and the quality of writing describing that research”.

Phiala’s work significantly improved upon the best previous determinations of a number of important measurables, such as the difference in mass between protons and neutrons. She also removes a major uncertainty for extracting strange form factors from data. The work has already had considerable impact in nuclear physics phenomenology, astrophysics and cosmology, including dark matter searches.

“Understanding the structure of the proton is really quite a fundamental test of our understanding of particle physics at the most basic level,” Phiala told Robyn Williams on ABC RN’s Science Show.

Diamond vs silicon: what will the next gen of computers be made of?

Inaugural Ruby Payne-Scott Award—Marcus Doherty, Australian National University

While much of Australia’s research into quantum computers is based around using silicon as the material of construction, postdoctoral fellow Dr Marcus Doherty at the Australian National University’s Research School of Physics and Engineering favours diamond as his platform of choice. He and his international colleagues have been looking at how to transport information between the components of a potential diamond-based quantum computer.

He believes that this can be done by controlling the movement of individual electrons between defects in diamonds, and told the APPC-AIP Congress about his team’s successful first steps towards putting this idea into practice.

“Defects in diamonds are a proven platform for the development of quantum microscopes, with the potential to yield unprecedented images of nature at the atomic scale and quantum computers that may one day solve problems too difficult for classical computers,” says Marcus.

Marcus has been awarded the inaugural 2016 Ruby Payne-Scott Award for excellence in early-career research for his outstanding contribution to the emergence of diamond-based quantum technologies.

A career beyond the Standard Model

Harrie Massey Medal—Ray Volkas, The University of Melbourne

Professor Ray Volkas has made seminal contributions over ~30 years to many areas of “physics beyond the standard model,” the field that seeks to uncover new particles and forces.

His papers have had an especially high impact in neutrino physics and dark matter physics. Some of his most significant contributions include his work on sterile neutrinos, mirror and asymmetric dark matter, classical scale invariance, the Higgs boson, and the origin of neutrino mass.

His main interests lie in helping to uncover new laws of physics, new particles, new forces between those particles, and how new physics affects our understanding of cosmology and high-energy astrophysics. His work is characterised by a high degree of creativity, leading to pioneering works that presage subsequent developments.

For contributions to physics or its applications, Professor Ray Volkas, Head of the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne Node Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terrascale (CoEPP) has been awarded the 2016 Harrie Massey Medal.

Teaching physics with VR, websites, simulations and more

AIP Education Medal—Margaret Wegener, The University of Queensland

University of Queensland physics researcher and lecturer Margaret Wegener has dedicated the past 15 years to making the fundamentals of physics meaningful to over 8,000 students with diverse career aspirations and backgrounds.

She has achieved this through the creative application of interactive modules, dynamic simulations, and virtual reality. Margaret has also played an active role in the AIP Education Committee and secured multiple grants to develop physics education initiatives for her students, schoolkids and the broader community.

“As a teaching-focused UQ staff member, Margaret has had a major impact in developing teaching practices within physics, including the introduction of active learning classes and inquiry-based laboratory experiments,” says Assosciate Professor Tim McIntyre, Head of Physics at UQ.

The AIP Education Medal is awarded biennially to an AIP member (or members) judged to have made the most significant contribution to university physics education in Australia. Margaret is recognised for her contributions over the past 15 years.

Role model for women, and science

Award for Outstanding Service to Physics in Australia—Cathy Foley, CSIRO

Cathy Foley is an award-winning scientist, a driving force behind Australian innovation and science policy, and a passionate advocate and role model for women in science. She has excelled in each of these roles in their own right—and combining the demands of all three is hugely impressive.

Cathy Foley, Deputy and Science Director of CSIRO Manufacturing, receives this year’s Award for Outstanding Service to Physics in recognition of her exceptional contributions to physics out of the lab.

She has been honoured both for her research and her distinguished career in science leadership, including serving as the President of the AIP and Science and Technology Australia. She is also known for her strong advocacy of women in STEM.

Two other awards were also presented at this year’s joint APPC-AIP Congress:

  • Don Melrose of the University of Sydney was awarded the 2016 S. Chandrasekhar Prize by the Association of Asia-Pacific Physics Societies (AAPPS). The prize, named after Indian-American astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, recognises outstanding contributions to the study and application of plasma physics.
  • The CN Yang Awards recognise outstanding physics research by early-career scientists and is named in honour of Nobel Prize winner Chen-Ning Yan. Three prizes are awarded, one for the host nation and two for other regions, to be presented by the presidents of the AAPPS and AIP. The 2016 recipients were Marcus Doherty, Takao Sasagawa, and Ling Lu.

Stories from the Congress

The biggest discovery of 2016 was gravitational waves, but what’s next?

Have more been found, what is Australia’s role, and why should we care?

Back in February 2016, it was Professor David Reitze who announced to the world that gravitational waves had been discovered at LIGO, 100 years after Einstein predicted them.

And now they want to find more. Late last year LIGO resumed the search for gravitational waves and the world is eagerly awaiting the results.

In Brisbane, David Reitze gave a first-hand account of what it is like to make a potentially Nobel-Prize winning discovery, which is being hailed as the beginning of a new era in astronomy.

Tiny ripples in space and time caused by the most violent events in the Universe, such as black holes colliding, were predicted by Einstein 100 years ago in his theory of relativity, but he thought they would be too small for humans to ever detect.

Undeterred, Reitze, along with Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, Gabriela González and others, spearheaded the international efforts to build a gravitational wave detector called LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) that would use laser light to detect gravitational waves as they travelled from distant cosmic upheavals, warping space on their way.

Almost as soon as they turned it on in September 2015, LIGO scientists detected a tiny ripple, a thousandth the diameter of a proton, caused by two enormous black holes colliding over a billion years ago, the most violent event ever directly witnessed by humans.

He told the story of the four months of checks and double checks that the data was not a mistake while rumours abounded. When the news finally broke, physicists celebrated a new era of astronomy, discovering things that were previously invisible.

Australia’s role

To detect gravitational waves, LIGO needed an entire generation of instruments to be created, such as powerful, stable lasers and ultrasensitive detectors. Australia played a significant role with researchers from the University of Adelaide, ANU, Charles Sturt University, Monash University, The University of Melbourne, and UWA developing LIGO instrumentation, developing theoretical frameworks underlying gravitational wave detection, and analysing LIGO data.

Read more about Australia’s gravitational wave research.

Australia helping to crack fusion power, bringing the energy of the sun down to earth for a zero carbon future

The key to a low carbon future is a huge fusion experiment being built in the south of France. ITER will be ten times hotter than the core of the sun, and will (hopefully) produce hundreds of megawatts of power.

Jean Jacquinot, long term advisor on the project, will share the hopes and dreams of fusion scientists all over the world as ITER’s construction gains momentum, thanks to an unprecedented collaboration between nations representing over a third of the world’s population.

The challenges are huge: holding 200 million degree-hot hydrogen gas in a magnetic donut, finding a wall material that can withstand the bombardment of a burning fusion reactor—neutrons with five times the energy of a conventional nuclear reactor—and efficiently converting that energy into electricity.

But Jacquinot says the pay-offs are huge—baseload power from essentially limitless fuel that is found in sea water, in a process that can’t meltdown and doesn’t create greenhouse gases or long-lived radioactive waste.

ITER is a collaboration between historically strong fusion research countries: EU, Russia, and the US, with more recent comers to the world stage in Asia.

Last year, the ITER Organization signed an agreement with ANSTO that will enable Australian scientists to participate in ITER and the Integrated Tokamak Physics Activity (ITPA), the international body that coordinates ITER research.

Read more on Australia’s involvement here.

Adi Paterson (CEO of ANSTO), Mike Walsh (Head of ITER diagnostics) and John Howard (ANU) at the ITER site last month (credit David Campbell, ITER)

The quantum manifesto: why quantum is worth one billion euro to Europe, and is being funded by the US big tech companies

Professor Alain Aspect firmly believes we’ve entered the second quantum revolution—an age that will see radical technological developments across industries, from manufacturing and measurement, to energy generation and computing.

During the first quantum revolution, we discovered the rules that govern the quantum realm, and how they differ from classical physics. Those discoveries, from 1950 onward, led to the invention of lasers, transistors and optical fibres.

Now, in the second revolution, we’re taking these rules and using them to develop new technologies in communications, measurement, and computing. At the Physics Congress, Alain Aspect from Institut d’Optique Graduate School gave a review of how we got to where we are today, and shared his hopes for what’s next.

The renowned quantum physicist is one of the main drivers behind the Quantum Manifesto, which predicated the European Commission’s one billion euro Quantum Flagship. Announced in May 2016, the Flagship’s aim is to develop quantum technologies over the next 10 years to place Europe at the forefront of the second quantum revolution.

Their remit is to partner with industry to bring the technology to the marketplace, and the investment is a strong sign that this technology is on the cusp of being realised. Google, IBM, Microsoft, Intel and other big tech companies are also investing in the second quantum revolution.

“What we are doing is moving the technology out of academia and theory and into the development of new technology and products,” says Alain.

Whilst quantum computers are unlikely to be commonplace in the next 10 years, the race to develop the first useful and profitable quantum computers and other technology is now well and truly on.

Australia is one of the world leaders in the field he admits, but the rivalry is friendly —“we’re all working together towards the same goal,” says Alain, who was on the Scientific Advisory Board of Australian Quantum Atom Optics, and now advises ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQuS).

Australia set to ride the quantum computing wave

We have the technology! The first simple quantum computers are being built all over the world as decades of research and development culminate in technology that accurately builds structures atom by atom.

Researchers already have practical plans for building usable quantum computers based on silicon, the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology Professor Michelle Simmons, from the University of New South Wales, told the Congress.

A key strategy is based on the team’s extraordinary control of individual atoms, which allows them to construct and precisely place atomic-scale devices in silicon. Michelle will also outline their approaches to scaling up their technology.

The Congress also heard from:

  • Professor Jingbo Wang, who with her colleagues in the Quantum Dynamics and Computation Group of the University of Western Australia are one of the teams already working on how to write those quantum computer programs.
  • Down in Melbourne, the technology is getting a very different application. An “atomic MRI machine” even smaller than the cells in your body is being designed by researchers at the University of Melbourne. It could provide direct insight into the “final frontier of life,” according to Viktor Perunicic.
  • And while much of Australia’s research into quantum computers is based around using silicon as the material of construction, postdoctoral fellow Dr Marcus Doherty at Australian National University’s Research School of Physics and Engineering favours diamond as the platform of choice.

Read the full story here.

Meet the scientists stalking, sensing and trapping elusive dark matter

Australian physicists are using all the skills of experienced hunters in their quest for dark matter, the other 85 per cent of matter in the Universe we have not been able to detect. And they are getting closer to their quarry.

Dark matter is so called because it does not interact with light or any other electromagnetic radiation. So the physicist hunters need to use all their ingenuity to track it down.

Members of three separate groups from across the continent gave the latest updates from the hunt at the APPC-AIP Congress in Brisbane.

  • The stalkers, led by Professor Victor Flambaum and his group at the University of New South Wales
  • The sensors, including Professor Mike Tobar and his group at the University of Western Australia
  • And the trappers, whose work was presented by Professor Anthony Williams of the University of Adelaide.

Read more about their work.

And here were some of the media’s favourite stories

ANU’s new telescope-on-a-chip will help us squint at alien Earths

Harry-Dean Kenchington Goldsmith and his colleagues at ANU have assembled a chip-based interferometer that could squint at far away stars to reveal Earth-like planets that could harbour life. The chip uses photonics—like electronics, but using light—to cause the light from the star to cancel itself out, highlighting the tiny signature of orbiting planets. Unlike conventional interferometers, the chip is flat so it doesn’t wobble, made of special glass so it doesn’t absorb the light it’s supposed to collect, and light enough to be put into orbit cheaply. The team hopes to use chips like this one to study the atmospheres of planets far, far away, looking for the tell-tale hue of life.

Kangaroos can help us bounce back from knee injuries

Kangaroo knees are impressively tough, and QUT researchers think they know why. They’ve been using a clever MRI trick called the Magic Angle Effect to image the microscopic structure of kangaroo cartilage, and have identified the structural characteristics of three different cartilages in the knee joint, each adapted for a different role—sliding, squishing, and carrying load—which allow Skippy to come down hard on both legs without needing a knee reconstruction.

Whilst the three histological zones have previously been identified in cows, horses and kangaroos, this study shows there are considerable differences between the thickness of these zones and also in the extent of collagen anisotropy. Tonima Ali from QUT hopes their findings may benefit knee joint treatment and tissue engineering.

Nanorubies and diamonds make your cancer cells stand out in a crowd

Near-infrared fluorescent nanomaterials could help surgeons better identify tumour tissue to remove, and healthy tissue to leave, according to researchers at RMIT. Dr Philipp Reineck and his team tested seven classes of red and near-infrared fluorescent materials in spectroscopy and fluorescence microscopy experiments for the first time. They found that nanomaterials such as nanodiamonds and nanorubies are vastly more stable than the organic dyes currently in use—glowing brighter for longer.

Once such materials are introduced to the body, a near-infrared camera will see the patient glowing from the inside, allowing “new windows into the body” and guiding cancer surgeons in their mission to locate and remove tumours as non-invasively as possible.

Night vision glasses for all using nano-antennas

A team at ANU have been working on disc-shaped nano-antennas which interact with light in novel ways. These tiny devices are similar in size to the wavelength of light, allowing them to interact with incident light in very precise ways. For example, switching the frequency from one specific colour to another, or even from invisible to visible.

Dr Mohsen Rahmani and colleagues believe this invention may soon have exciting applications in diverse industries, from anti-counterfeit devices in our currency to novel biosensors and even super-light night-vision glasses, which could replace the cumbersome goggles currently used by our armed forces.

QUT researchers spot solar revolution in fly eyes

The compound eyes of flies have inspired QUT researchers hunting for the perfect solar cell. Fly eyes have evolved over millions of years to make the most of the tiny amount of visible light that hits them in a brilliant example of natural nanotechnology. The team from QUT’s zinc-oxide replicas pull off the same tricks, using a three-zone structure copied straight from a real-life fly.

The bio-inspired nanomaterial captures energy across a wide solar spectrum using only one material, something that conventional solar panels struggle to achieve with a plethora of metals. The fly-eye solution comes “very close to perfection,” says Dr Ziqi Sun, and could readily be incorporated into modern solar cells for an impressive boost in energy harvesting.

Ziqi told the Congress about the underlying technology that he and his colleagues have developed to make nano-structures using sheets of metal oxides. The new solar cell design will be published in Materials Today Chemistry.


Reach a bigger audience. The Australian physics events calendar is the definitive source for physics events around the country. If your physics event isn’t listed here, ask us about adding it, having it included in these regular bulletins, and tweeted from the AusPhysics account.

Australian Capital Territory

There are no upcoming events.
New South Wales

Primary science teacher professional development day
Fri, 5 May 2017, 9:30am
ANSTO Discovery Centre

Secondary science teacher professional development day
Mon, 20 Mar 2017, 9am
Queensland Museum

South Australia

Secondary science teacher professional development day (pre-service)
Thu, 8 Jun 2017, 9am
The Science Exchange

Secondary science teacher professional development day (in-service)
Fri, 9 Jun 2017, 9am
The Science Exchange

There are no upcoming events.


AIP event  Mount Burnett Observatory members night
Fridays, 8pm
Mount Burnett, VIC

Journeying to the Centres of the Planets; and when Art and Science Collide: X-ray Fluorescence Elemental Mapping of Nineteenth Century Paintings from the National Gallery of Victoria
Mon, 6 Feb 2017, 5:30pm
Pullman Melbourne Albert Park

Western Australia

Secondary science teacher professional development day
Fri, 31 Mar 2017, 9am
Scitech, City West Centre


Wagga 2017–The 41st Annual Condensed Matter and Materials Meeting
31 January to 3 February, Wagga Wagga Campus Charles Stuart University, NSW

Fifth Annual Meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Mathematical Physics
1–3 Feb 2017, Kiama, NSW

Australian X-ray Analytical Association (AXAA) 2017 Conference and Exhibition
5–9 February 2017, Pullman Albert Park, Melbourne, Vic

Eigth International Conference on Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology
12–16 February 2017, Queenstown, NZ

Cosmic Stars Astronomy and Space Science Education Workshop
4 Mar 2017, Giralang Primary School, ACT

Realising Ska-­Low: New Technologies & Techniques for Imaging and Calibration of Low Frequency Arrays
29–31 Mar 2017, Perth, WA

Innovation in Radiation Applications 2017
20–22 Apr 2017, University of Wollongong, NSW

New Quantum Africa 4
30 Apr 2017, Tunis, Tunisia

Surveying the Cosmos: The Science from Massively Multiplexed Surveys
5–9 Jun 2017, Sydney, NSW

International Conference on Photonic, Electronic and Atomic Collisions (ICPEAC XXX)
26 July to 1 August 2017, Cairns, Qld
Note the AIP student travel scheme for AIP student members will be available for this conference.

International Particle Accelerator Conference (IPAC 2019)
25–29 May 2019, Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre, Vic