Award-winning physics builds a new world

Australian Institute of Physics, Media releases

What technologies will surround us in 2060? The clues are in the work of four physicists recognised with awards at the annual conference of the Australian Institute of Physics held in Melbourne in December. Working in fields that will become household names – plasma nanoscience, quantum optics, acoustics and coherent radiation—these scientists are literally creating tomorrow’s world.

For example, 50 years ago the laser was an esoteric research tool and the stuff of James Bond. Today we use dozens of lasers every day in computers, cars and telecommunications. And 30 years ago wireless computing was a dream, now it is taken for granted.  You can add to that plasma TVs, computer chips, USB sticks, solar cells, smart phones, and MRI scans—they all stem from research in physics.

The four researchers honoured were:
Prof Kostya (Ken) Ostrikov, a CSIRO scientist who set the ground rules for constructing new materials atom by atom using collections of charged particles known as plasmas

Prof Hans-Albert Bachor from the Australian National University (ANU) whose work on the graininess or particle nature of light is leading to new technologies such as quantum encryption and teleportation

A/Prof Robert Scholten, a University of Melbourne physicist who has established a thriving and profitable business which makes and exports laser controllers

Prof Joe Wolfe of the University of New South Wales, an expert on the acoustics of music whose multimedia learning resources are accessed about 60,000 times a day

Constructing new materials

Kostya (Ken) Ostrikov from CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering won the Walter Boas Medal for an Australian resident whose original research has made the most important contribution to physics in the past five years. Initially, as an Australian Research Council Queen Elizabeth II Fellow at the University of Sydney, and then, as a CEO Science Leader at CSIRO, Kostya almost single-handedly has established the basis of the field of plasma nanoscience—how to select and generate the most suitable plasma particles for assembling materials from the ground up. His work has made it possible to construct exciting new materials such as different forms of nanotubes, nanocrystals and graphene.

‘His research has created new ways to generate self-assembled nanomaterials, nanoelectronic and photonic structures, and devices for future computer chips, solar cells, communications systems and biosensors,’ reads the citation for the Pawsey Medal of Academy of Science, which Kostya won in 2008. Kostya’s most recent interest is in controlling matter and energy at the atomic and molecular level, and it is critical to the development of renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies for a sustainable future. This work will be the core of an ARC Future Fellowship project set to commence early in 2011.

Kostya is a serious over-achiever. For instance, he has held eight ongoing, full-time, distinguished, and honorary professor level appointments in six countries and been granted more than $7 million in competitive research funding. His three books, more than 270 refereed journal papers, hundreds of conference papers and one patent, are highly-cited and exceptionally influential. He convenes an annual international conference on plasma nanoscience, and attracts the world’s leading researchers to Australia. Nearly a quarter of Kostya’s 53 students have gone on to become full or associate professors.

In fact, Kostya Ostrikov has much in common with the man for whom the Walter Boas Medal is named. Both were immigrants to Australia, who made outstanding contributions to their adopted country. And both ended up working in materials science at the CSIRO.

Communicating with light

The Harrie Massey Medal and Prize, awarded every two years, was specifically created to recognise the links between Australian physics and the rest of the world. Established by the Institute of Physics, UK, it was named for an Australian who established rocket and space research in Britain, and is awarded for contributions to physics made by an Australian physicist working anywhere in the world, or by a non-Australian resident working in this country. This year, the work of Hans Bachor, has been recognised.

Hans is one of the founding fathers of the field known as quantum optics which explores the particle nature of light. Among other things, it is yielding technologies for secure communication and ultra-precise measurement. Through the efforts of Hans and his students, it is an area where Australia is at the forefront. Bachor’s own achievements have included increasing understanding of the phenomenon of entanglement, where particles at a distance act as if they are directly and intimately connected. (Einstein referred to this as “spooky”.)

But Hans has contributed a great deal more—as a research leader and administrator. He played a significant role turning the Department of Physics at ANU into a world leader in its field and, as the inaugural director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum-Atom Optics, he helped pave the way for many other research centres, networks and groups involving quantum technologies.

Exporting laser technology

Robert Scholten has demonstrated how practical physics can be, by establishing a laser technology company which within three years has achieved an annual turnover of about half a million dollars, without any investment of venture capital. MOGlabs, which is based in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, markets technology which controls lasers with very high precision. About half of its product is exported to laboratories overseas.

For this, Rob has been awarded the Alan Walsh Medal for Service to Industry. But that’s only part of his story, for Rob is also a prolific researcher. He is a program director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coherent X-ray Science, involved in developing new approaches to observing and imaging biologically relevant molecules within living and dying cells.

Physical education

All these achievements of Australian physics depend on a constant supply of enthusiastic young researchers with strong backgrounds in physics. Joe Wolfe has been awarded this year’s AIP Education Medal for his work in instructing and interesting students in physics.

In particular, Joe has developed a web-based learning resource for physics students known as physclips (—a combination of hyperlinked text, graphics, animation and video which attracts about 60,000 hits a day. Joe’s own research is to do with the acoustics of the voice, the ear and musical instruments. And he is also a musician and composer. He is world renowned in the field of acoustics, publishing in the journals such as Nature and Science, and has received awards from acoustical societies in Australia, the US and France.

Joe has also been active in bringing science to school students and the general public, via extensive websites and radio programs. He strongly believes that the best researchers are often the best teachers, and is worried by trends that lead academics to specialise in research-only or teaching-only careers.