2014 Australian Frontiers of Science - presentation abstracts

What is a decadal plan?

Professor Stuart Wyithe
University of Melbourne

The Australian astronomical community carries out a formal strategic planning process on a 10-year time scale. This process provides the opportunity for Australian astronomy to carry out a stock take of its capabilities, assess its impact both nationally and internationally, provide a vision for the future and to set priorities and develop strategies on how that vision might be implemented. The resultant decadal plan can then be used as a highly infl uential document to present our vision to key stakeholders outside the research sector. In this talk I will briefl y describe the process that the Australian community has pursued over the past 12 months, and the outcomes that we hope to achieve.

Implementing a decadal plan

Dr Yeshe Fenner
Astronomy Australia Limited

The New horizons: a Decadal Plan for Australian astronomy 2006–2015 called for ‘A peak body to coordinate Australia’s astronomical activities and to represent it in international partnerships. Such a body may not necessarily have formal authority over all the diverse elements that comprise Australian astronomy, but it can provide an effective governance mechanism. The ability to seek and administer funds will also be a key element in the effectiveness of such a body.’ (p. 24). In 2007, Astronomy Australia Ltd (AAL) was established as an impartial and independent body, to manage the Australian Government’s $45 million National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) investment in astronomy infrastructure and advance the goals in the Decadal Plan for Australian astronomy. AAL has since coordinated the Australian astronomy response to, and managed the funding for, a range of other national schemes and projects, with AAL’s funding allocations totalling over $120 million. AAL’s strategic decisions are made by its independent skills-based Board of Directors, with input from member representatives and advisory committees. In this presentation, I will describe AAL’s role, experience, challenges and successes in implementing the infrastructure priorities of the Decadal Plan for Australian astronomy.

The long tail of Australian astronomy: extreme astrophysics with international-scale facilities

Dr Duncan Galloway
Monash University

Australian astronomy has long been known for its strength in research and instrumentation, particularly in the optical and radio wavebands. However, a substantial fraction of the Australian community is focussed on the exploration of objects and phenomena that can best be explored with much more exotic instruments, designed to detect ultra-high energy gamma-rays; neutrinos; and even gravitational waves. The Decadal Plan currently in preparation includes for the fi rst time a working group with the goal of assessing the current research strengths and future opportunities in these areas. Although diverse, this group has in common a high level of engagement with large collaborations developing international-scale facilities, which can help to mitigate the perceived disadvantage of insuffi cient local ‘critical mass’. I will discuss the formation, demographics and development of this group, as well as our conclusions for the current Decadal Plan and how they can contribute to the broader national effort.

The role and importance of demographics studies in a decadal plan

Ms Céline d’Orgeville
The Australian National University

Last year, the National Committee for Astronomy of the Australian Academy of Science initiated work towards preparing the 2016–2025 Decadal Plan for Australian astronomy. A number of working groups (WG) were formed to discuss science topics, research facilities, as well as broader aspects of Australian astronomy. Among those, WG3.1— Demographics was tasked with conducting a census of Australian astronomers and astronomy institutions. This demographics survey aims to understand the current state of the Australian astronomy workforce and to assess its scientifi c impact, thus allowing the astronomy community to assess its strengths and more effectively plan for the future. This presentation reports on the methodology used to perform the survey, provides a snapshot of key fi ndings to date, and refl ects on the merits and benefi ts of going through this process on a regular basis.

The edge of the Universe—a fundamental limit how much we can know?

Associate Professor Tamara Davis
The University of Queensland

This talk will focus on the edges of space on the large scale. How far can we currently see and where will our view be permanently obscured? Are we like ancient mariners, looking at the horizon and fearing we’ll fall off the edge? Are we modern seafarers who have now surveyed the whole Earth and realised there is nowhere else to sail? It is timely to discuss the ultimate limits to our view, as the next generations of telescopes will soon be able to survey almost the entire volume of the Universe, in all directions, all the way back to almost the beginning of time. What will we learn, and what will be forever beyond our view?

The small-scale spatial limits to the Universe

Dr Alessandro Fedrizzi
The University of Queensland

The edges of the Universe and the smallest scales in the quantum world are separated by more than 60 orders of magnitude. It is at the intersection between these two strikingly different worlds where we encounter the, perhaps fi nal, frontier of scientifi c knowledge. This talk will zoom in on very small things: photons at the Planck scale, quantum foam in vacuum, and the very reality of the quantum wavefunction. What are the fundamental limits of measurability, and what do these quantum effects tell us about as-yet-unexplained cosmological phenomena such as dark energy and inflation?

The edge of time: What happened at the big bang?

Dr Luke Barnes
University of Sydney

Was the big bang the beginning of time? Does the Universe have a beginning? These age-old questions have been remarkably informed by modern cosmology. In this presentation, I will follow the theorems, evidence and hints that lead us back in time. In particular, I will discuss the expansion of space, the physics of the very early Universe, cosmic infl ation, the impact of quantum physics, and the reason (or one of them) why Stephen Hawking is famous.

The edges of knowledge —the ‘physics is done’ syndrome

Associate Professor Michael Murphy
Swinburne University of Technology

Over the last century, physicists have established that the Standard Model of particle physics and General Relativity explain all the phenomena we observe in our Universe (with a possible exception or two). To some, it can seem like ‘physics is done’. At the same time, though, physicists repeatedly attempt new observations and experiments, aiming to test—and hopefully break—the predictions of these theories and/or to search for new phenomena altogether. The problem is this: physicists seem convinced that, despite their success, current theories seem incomplete and more than a little unsatisfying. For example, one can ask seemingly well-motivated questions, such as ‘Why does electromagnetism has the strength it has?’, and our current theories have no answers. In this presentation, I will give an observational astronomer’s view on the ‘physics is done’ syndrome and physicists’ attempts to test current theories and fi nd new phenomena. I will try to speculate on the possible edges of knowledge—on what we can and cannot know, in principle—about our Universe.

Economic impacts of basic research

Dr Jenny Gordon
Productivity Commission

The economic impacts of basic research are notoriously hard to measure in any comprehensive way. The pathway between basic research and impact is often long and unpredictable, and innovations often draw on many different fi ndings from basic research. Yet policy makers still want guidance on public investment strategies—and estimates of the impact of basic research is part of the information base of this decision making. Estimating impact comes down to mapping the outputs of basic research to impacts—new goods and services, new production processes that add to GDP and/or to the quality of life of Australians. The presentation will provide examples of some evaluations to explain how economists go about imperfectly estimating the impact of some basic research.

Placing science at the centre of industry policy

Dr Rob Porteous

Australian Government Department of Industry Science, research and innovation are essential for increasing productivity growth and ensuring a strong future for the Australian economy. In recognition of this, the Australian Government is working to maximise the commercial return from our investment in research. By placing science at the centre of industry policy, the government is committed to making stronger and more meaningful connections between science and business to produce better commercial outcomes. This presentation will outline the Australian Government’s initiatives to improve the practical applications of science and research, including those announced as part of the Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda. The presentation will also discuss the role of the newly established Commonwealth Science Council in providing high-level advice to government about its science and research investment.

Relationship building between research and industry

Mr Roger Franzen
The Australian National University

The world of science today is changing signifi cantly, incorporating ever more complex engineered systems to provide the scientifi c data required by researchers. The complexity of these engineered systems is growing beyond the effective/effi cient ability of traditional laboratory construction methods. To achieve their instrumentation requirements with ever more constrained budgets and timelines, today’s researchers must learn to engage with professional engineers using structured engineering management methods. Such methods are regularly used successfully by industry, but are still largely foreign to the research community. This talk will explore how these trends may effect the every day researcher and how, with respect to instrumentation, the traditional role of the Principal Investigator may become more likened to that of the role of an architect. The talk will reference Australia’s current involvement in the Giant Magellan Telescope project.

From astronomy to archaeology, art history and art conservation

Dr Haida Liang
Nottingham Trent University, UK

Astronomy is both a fundamental science and an applied science. Nothing could be more fundamental than understanding the expansion of the Universe. Yet, astrophysics is also applied physics and uses pretty much every branch of physics. Astronomy deals with faint signals, which requires working at the forefront of imaging science. Imaging science is therefore often the link between astronomy and other disciplines. While the fact that the research occurs in such a specialised area might give the impression that astronomy is a rather narrow subject, it is only narrow in the area of application. The knowledge base necessary to carry out this research relies on a broad physics and engineering background. Observational astronomy provides rigorous training in image processing, statistics and programming, while astronomy itself deals with the interaction between light and matter—which is fundamental to understanding the materials that make up an ancient object of art and its sensitivity to light-induced degradation. Astronomy is a study of the history of the Universe, and uses advanced remote imaging and analytical techniques to study the objects in it. Archaeology and art history rely on the same advanced imaging and analytical techniques—as these techniques are by default non-invasive—to study the ancient objects and infer the history of culture.

Radio galaxies meet cancer therapy: from Earth rotation aperture synthesis to patient rotation computed tomography

Dr Ilana Feain
University of Sydney

It is no exaggeration to say that cancer represents the biggest global health burden facing the world in the next few decades. Cancer is going to impact low and middle-income countries the hardest, where there is little to no access to adequate cancer treatments. Radiation therapy is recommended in about half of all cancer treatments. Amortised over the lifetime of the machine, radiotherapy is the most cost-effective way to treat patients both curatively and palliatively. But, that is the problem. Current best-practice radiotherapy machines cost $5–6 million each. This is without adding the costs of a radiation-shielded room or the service and maintenance of this highly complicated engineering equipment. Using frugal innovation, our team has invented (and patented) Nano-X: a novel radiotherapy system, which delivers best-practice treatment at about 10% of the cost of current best-practice treatment machines. Our solution drastically simplifi es the radiotherapy machine for remote usability. Conventional radiotherapy machines require a patient to lie motionless on their back while a 3000 kilogram gantry rotates the X-ray treatment beam around the patient. Our solution does away with the gantry, and rotates the patient on a customdesigned couch. I am the project lead for Nano-X. My background in radio astronomy image processing, and as a project scientist for the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfi nder, is utterly pertinent. Tangible skills that are associated with this project include (i) real-time tomographic image reconstruction with a self-calibration feedback loop, (ii) complex machines contracted to a company in China to be shipped to a remote location where cooling and power are major challenges, and (iii) heavily radiation-shielded rooms. The intangible skills include developing, advocating and demonstrating a novel—and potentially paradigm-shifting— technological solution to a traditionally conservative community. Changing careers is very humbling, but incredibly thrilling. It means leaving behind your track record, your knowledge of the literature, the jargon, the ‘right people’ to side with, and often those mentors and sponsors that have in many ways kept you afl oat over the years. I spent more than a third of my life commissioning receiver systems and studying radio galaxy evolution and feedback over most redshifts and most luminosities. I still feel there are many unanswered questions I would like to get back to one day. But, wherever I go next, I know I can rely on my astronomy skillset and background.

When your hobby and your career change places

Dr Paul Brooks
Trident Subsea Cables

Growing up, I was captivated by space and the planned orbiting telescopes, and set my sights on becoming an astronomical scientist—ideally a mission specialist on the proposed Space Shuttle to do science in space. Connecting early microcomputers to interface with the outside world and each other was fun. Along the way, advances in technology and communications meant it was no longer necessary to look through telescopes, or to go into orbit to use a telescope. In addition, the new phenomenon, called the internet, took over, and astronomers played a major role in the development and expansion of the early internet. Now, I build the internet for a career, and astronomy is a hobby. However, the lessons learnt during higher education have been vital to me, and my latest projects are closing the circle and bringing me back to astronomy and space again.

Big data challenges for the next generation of radio telescopes

Professor Steven Tingay
International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research

I will discuss the challenges in modern radio astronomy connected with the next generation of radio telescopes, in particular the challenges posed by the massive computing requirements set by the ambitious science goals. These challenges are starting to be met already, with telescopes like the Murchison Widefi eld Array (MWA) generating multiple petabytes of data and requiring massive computer facilities. The MWA is a precursor for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will move into the exascale computing regime within a decade. I will review the science and technology that is pushing radio astronomy in this direction, give real-world examples of how the MWA is coping with the challenge thus far, and will extrapolate to the era of the SKA.

Discovering the unknown— unknowns in big data

Professor Ray Norris
CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility

The Evolutionary Map of the Universe (EMU) project will transform our view of the radio sky, going 30 times deeper than any other large radio survey, and discovering about 70 million galaxies. The EMU, like other ground-breaking surveys, is exploring an unexplored part of the observational phase space, and experience tells us that such projects nearly always discover unexpected new phenomena—the ‘unknown unknowns’ of astronomy. Even more importantly, these discoveries dominate the scientifi c productivity of major new telescopes. For example, of the ten most important discoveries made with the Hubble Space Telescope, only one featured in its original science goals. However, while surveys such as the EMU are certainly likely to stumble across major ‘unknown unknowns’, we may be incapable of recognising them because (a) the data volumes are too large to query the data except through a well-posed question (to fi nd the ‘known unknowns’), and (b) the complexity of new instruments may prevent a human from distinguishing a genuine discovery from an instrumental artefact. So, can we build software to mine the data, searching for the unexpected? History suggests that, if we do not, we will miss 90% of the potential discoveries.

Machine learning for scientific discovery

Dr Cheng Soon Ong

Advances in algorithms and computation have allowed researchers to analyse ever larger quantities of data. This has resulted in an increasingly datadriven approach to scientifi c research, for which machine learning has turned out to be a popular paradigm. This talk is about a personal journey of discovery in the biomedical sciences through the lens of machine learning. After introducing a few basic machine learning ideas, I will highlight several collaborations that show how advances in data analysis have enabled scientifi c discovery. I will also illustrate the potential of machine learning for astronomers using several machine learning questions that have arisen in discussions with researchers working on the SkyMapper project. The talk will focus on the practical challenges of interdisciplinary projects and strategies for using machine learning in data-driven science.

Why does science communication matter?

Ms Margaret Wertheim
The Institute For Figuring

At the dawn of the scientific revolution, René Descartes wrote his famous book Discourse on method, a slim volume outlining his ideas about the emerging realm of natural science. His target audience was not his fellow scientists, to whom his more technical works were directed, but the ladies and gentlemen of the Parisian salons. Descartes realised that if the new science was going to take off it would have to be supported by patrons, which meant potential patrons had to be engaged and enthused. Four hundred years later, natural science has more than proved its worthiness. Across the spectrum, from cosmology to biology, science has changed the basic tenor of our lives and today provides the foundation of our conception of the real. Yet support for science remains a central issue in contemporary society. Although there is no lack of great scientifi c projects to pursue, funding for science is beginning to lag, and government support in many countries, including Australia, is waning. In this talk, internationally acclaimed science writer Margaret Wertheim will discuss why science communication remains as vital a project now as it was in the early seventeenth century. Bringing together historical, philosophical and sociological perspectives, Wertheim will advance the case that science communication is an essential part of the infrastructure of science itself.

Science can change lives

Miss Renae Sayers

Renae Sayers will discuss the power of having scientists and researchers connected with the community and why this can change lives—all you need to start is a healthy dose of curiosity. Our science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) world has it in spades.

Engaging policymakers through science

Dr Alexander Cooke
Australian Government Department of Industry

Dr Cooke will discuss how scientists and researchers can reach out to government and its policymakers. He will discuss some avenues for infl uencing public policy and some examples of how this has worked in the past.

Professional science communication: challenges and rewards

Mr Pete Wheeler
International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research

Professional science communicators, like scientists, are always ‘work heavy’ and ‘time poor’. We seem to be constantly in motion. Before the dust has settled from the last public event, we are already working on a media release, developing a new education program for underprivileged students and simultaneously hammering out a gaggle of grant applications to make it all possible. So, how do we ensure that what we are doing is what we should be doing while maintaining this constant level of activity? The answer is, it is not easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is. Evaluation is essential for refi ning programs, assessing impact against the initial objectives and reporting outcomes to those we answer to. It is often diffi cult to assign time and resources to evaluation, but it is something we must do. In this short presentation, I will describe several key programs of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research and how we evaluate them effi ciently and effectively. I will also attempt to summarise the benefi ts we generate for our researchers, the community and our key stakeholders. Finally, I will touch on how this translates into ‘value’ for the universities and the state government that fund this work.

Studies in Indigenous astronomy

Dr Duane Hamacher
University of New South Wales

Australia is home to several hundred distinct Aboriginal and Islander communities, each with a culture rich in astronomical knowledge. These cultures stretch back more than 50 000 years, making them the oldest continuous cultures on Earth, and the world’s oldest astronomers. Woven into oral traditions and material culture, astronomical knowledge is used for navigation, calendars, food economics, sacred law, ceremony and social structure. Our knowledge of Indigenous astronomy is now greatly expanding, revealing a complexity and depth not before recognised or appreciated. Recent fi ndings show that Aboriginal people built stone arrangements to mark the position of the setting sun at the solstices and equinoxes. Ceremonial sites are aligned to the position of the Milky Way. The breeding cycles of animals are closely linked with the rising and setting times of their celestial counterparts. Descriptions of ancient meteorite impacts remain in oral tradition. Torres Strait Islanders predict changing weather patterns using the degree of scintillation of stars. Our understanding of Indigenous astronomical knowledge is not only important for our cultural heritage, it is essential for appreciating the complexity and benefi ts of Indigenous Knowledge Systems that were developed over tens of thousands of years.

Working with Indigenous students and communities

Ms Emma Woodward
CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences

Emma is an experienced cross-cultural researcher who has worked in close partnership with Aboriginal communities on water resource, climate change and livelihoods projects in far northern Australia, and has been instrumental in developing community-scale research protocols and agreements directly with Aboriginal research participants. Through this award Emma seeks to build her knowledge and expertise in creating ethical Indigenous research partnerships and developing best practice frameworks for Indigenous research engagement. She has developed six seasonal calendars from six different language groups from the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The calendars provide early warning signs of environmental change, which will help scientists manage water use and monitor the impacts of climate change. In her talk, Emma will describe some of the projects she is currently involved in.

Mentoring program between CSIRO astronomers and the Pia Wadjarri remote community school

Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith
CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science

For the past two years, I have been taking part in a CSIRO mentoring program at the Pia Wadjarri remote community school in Western Australia. Pia Wadjarri is a small Aboriginal community, located within the Wadjarri Yamatji native title claim region in the mid-west of Western Australia. Pia Wadjarri is the closest community to the Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory, which hosts CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfi nder telescope, as well as the Murchison Widefi eld Array telescope. The observatory will later become the Australian site of the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest radio telescope. The mentoring program is one aspect of the Indigenous Land Use Agreement between CSIRO and the Wadjarri Yamatji people. In this talk, I will describe the aims and implementation of the mentoring program, as well as the broader Indigenous engagement strategy between CSIRO and the traditional owners.

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