Neutrinos, Nanotech and the Physics of Photons…

Scientist in the Spotlight: David Rothall

Degree Bachelor of Science in Nanotechnology (Honours), Graduate Certificate in Innovation and Enterprise (Science and Technology)
Current research PhD in Astrophysics. This research focusses on attempting to model a part of the early Universe that lead to star and planet formation.
Favourite Quotes “HNAAAARGH!” Arnold Schwarzenegger in several films

David Rothall

Have you heard about the neutrinos that have recently been discovered travelling at apparent speeds greater than the speed of light? If the finding of these physicists at CERN is confirmed with further research, these puny sub-atomic particles will mean the laws of physics need a re-write. As they currently stand (largely due to the work of Einstein), the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant, and a ‘speed limit’ for the Universe. It has been believed that nothing can travel at speeds equal to or greater than the speed of light. Now, this whole ‘constant speed of light’ thing is pretty weird. It means no matter how fast you’re travelling the speed of light will always be the same to you. I could be floating gently through space and you could be really zooming- yet the light travelling past would appear to be going at the same speed to BOTH of us- weird,eh? It lead to Einstein’s famous theories of relativity.

But now physicists could be making some adaptions, in light of the neutrino findings. This is how science works. We have a theory that explains all available evidence, but as soon as something occurs that doesn’t fit the theory, it has to be changed. But unfortunately, scientists don’t always want things to change, especially if we are talking about laws or theories that have been around a long time and have a large pile of evidence backing them up. There has been a huge amount of skepticism surrounding the ‘faster than light neutrinos’ claim (, because it goes against what has stood for so long. In fact, if you check out the article, it says: “Jenny Thomas, co-spokesperson for the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) experiment operating out of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, said the results had been seen before.

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The Seas of Change

Scientist in the Spotlight: Sam Taylor

Degree Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology (Honours), Graduate Certificate in Spanish
Current research PhD in Marine Biology and Algal Phycology. This research centres on the problem of invasive species and the lack of information about how they could impact habitats in the future when the climate changes.
Favourite Quotes “Don’t write crap. It can’t be that hard.” – The Hon Julia Gillard PM, National Press Club 18/7/2011, on the role of the Media in reporting policy matters.

Sam Taylor snorkelling at Heron island

Sam Taylor wants to see changes. And he is working to make the happen. As a marine biologist, he understands the impacts our activities are having on the planet. And his volunteer work in policy development for conservation organisations and universities has helped him discover the path he wants to take to contribute to changing those impacts. Sam wants to be the valuable link between scientists and politicians, to have a global impact in how the environment is treated. He has fascinating views on the place for science and science communicators in our society.

He says:
When I think of science, I think of the environment. Science is fundamentally about trying to understand natural processes, and our place in the grand scheme of things. We also use science and engineering to copy nature, and it informs most of our economic activities. However, many people take science for granted, or do not understand its full significance in society.
So I see an important opportunity to help others realise the importance of science and to take it more seriously.

While a PhD usually leads into postdoctoral research and a research-based or academic career, I see it now for me as being an avenue of credibility, that is to say, a key in the door to being a link between scientists who value what the PhD means, and the public and governments who don’t.

He is a fabulous example of how many different strengths and passions can be combined. And the impact can be greater than the sum of the parts. Sam’s dreams are big, and so is his desire to follow them. When we worked together to run biology tutorials at University, Sam was already passionate about conservation. But like many people he didn’t have a set path of what he wanted to do. It was by making that effort to be involved, by using his imagination and by keeping a broad view that he’s created an awesome vision for his future. It was certainly very interesting hearing his views and ideas when I interviewed him recently…

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A Growing Passion

Scientist in the Spotlight: Camilla Humphries

Degree Bachelor of Agricultural Science, with a focus on agronomy and cropping including viticulture and broadacre
Current research Master of Agricultural Science in Sustainable Agriculture. Project aims to achieve higher yielding wheat varieties which better utilize essential soil nutrients such as phosphate.
Future Science Aspirations To work with subsistence farmers in developing countries to achieve more sustainable cropping systems and increase food security through innovation and knowledge transfer.
Favourite Quotes “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work” –Aristotle
“I must be cruel to be kind; thus bad begins and worse remains behind” –Shakespeare

Camilla in Peru

Can we ensure food security for a booming global population now and into the future? Are genetically modified organisms the answer to feeding the world in an environmentally sustainable way…or do they spell disaster?

My friend Camilla- a cross-country skier, runner, wine-lover, traveller and agricultural scientist- believes that sustainable agriculture, including the use of GM plants, could help to feed the world.

Growing up in Melbourne, Camilla spent many days on the family apple orchard near the coast, helping her dad plant trees. From these beginnings grew a love of horticulture and agriculture. Despite not having much of a passion or natural talent for the kind of science taught at school, her interest in plant breeding led her to genetics and the wider biological sciences.

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Digging for Answers

Scientist in the Spotlight: Sam Arman

Degree Bachelor of Arts (Philosophy), Bachelor of Science (Ecology, Behaviour & Evolution) and Bachelor of Science Honours (Palaeontology)
Current research PhD in palaeontology, in microwear (in large herbivores of the Australian Pleistocene)
Favourite Quote The interesting thing about scientific questions is that one bounces of another like a series of billiard balls – and just occasionally one finishes up in the pocket.
-Richard Fortey

Sam Arman

What is consciousness? Where did the Universe come from? Who are we really? Are we alone?
There may be some questions that science will never be able to answer, that will always remain in the realms of philosophy. But since the days of such fellows as Aristotle, science has provided us with knowledge to help formulate perhaps some better answers to these questions. At the very least, we now know that we live on a tiny planet orbiting a mediocre star in a universe more vast than we can comprehend, but that was once a teeny tiny point. We know that the incredible species covering this planet, including ourselves, came about from some carbon-and nitrogen-rich molecules forming that were capable of replicating. And replicate, evolve and adapt they did to produce the incredible complexities of life- including our brains. We know that we are really made up of stuff that is somewhere between a wave and a particle, and that we’re 99.999% empty space.

This knowledge does not answer all of our philosophical questions, and for scientists, answering one question just raises more (see Sam’s fav quote). However it does give a frame of reference to ponder and consider philosophical questions (see) and scientists from Aristotle, Da Vinci, Galileo, Dirac, Einstein to Hawking and Salk (inventor of the polio vaccine) are also really philosophers.

And who knows how far fields like neuroscience, evolutionary biology and theoretical physics will be able to take us to answer the fundamental questions of humanity?

The scientific process was developed out of philosophy and I think it would be fantastic for all scientists to have an understanding of the history and philosophy of science. Sam Arman is someone who really does. In fact, it was by studying philosophy that he became interested in science and eventually in palaeontology, in which he is now studying for his PhD. He says he decided to study science for ‘the pursuit of knowledge. Pure and simple.’

It’s a fascinating path to a fascinating field:

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Capturing the Light

Scientist in the Spotlight: Dr Kylie Catchpole

Degree Bachelor of Science(Hons) in Physics
PhD research Solar photovoltaic technology
Current Research Plasmonic solar cell technology (nano-scale optics)

Dr Kylie Catchpole. Photo by Belinda Pratten

Australia is truly a sunburnt country. While this has meant greater rates of melanoma and farmers struggling with drought, it also means we could become a nation powered by sunshine. In fact, we could power our entire country using just 1% of our surface area, using the latest in solar technology. And helping us reach this goal is Dr Kylie Catchpole, an ARC Research Fellow from the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University. Her team has recently developed a more efficient solar cell using silver nanoparticles. This was named by MIT in 2010 as ‘one of the world’s ten most important emerging technologies’ and saw her win ABC’s ‘The New Inventors’ in May.

Solar panels in the Northern Territory. By Sweet One on Flickr

She was also named the ACT Winner of the Australian Institute of Policy and Science Tall Poppy Awards in 2009 and her work has featured in Science and The Economist.

Kylie is someone I can relate well to. Not in the ‘won a stack of awards for doing ground breaking research’ kind of way, but because she loves physics and maths and has a passion for the environment and conservation. She wanted to do research, but in something that she would be passionate about because she felt she could make a real contribution.

And she has definitely found it. It’s just another example showing that if you follow your passions and interests, opportunities will arise in areas you may never have thought of. It’s an inspiring story. I also really love that her supervisor pushed her into communicating her science early on. She really recognises the value of engaging with the public about what is happening in science.

I caught up with her the other day to here more about solar technology, ‘Plasmonic Light Trapping’, a career as a researcher and where Kylie sees science fitting into society.

A River of Dreams in Action

Rowan by the Seine River in Paris

Scientist in the Spotlight: Rowan Steele

Degree Bachelor of Environmental Engineering (Honours)
Current Research Water usage patterns for Australian households
Future Job Environmental Engineer at SA Water. Rowan also hopes to design water systems in developing countries.

Rowan canoeing on the Murray River

Activism is often seen as a pastime of Humanities or Politics students, not engineers.  In fact last year I spent time on the Make Poverty History Roadtrip and had a fantastic time learning about international politics, economics and aid work as one of only a couple of scientists in over 100 ambassadors. But for Rowan Steele, spending time outdoors and canoeing on the Murray lead him not only to an Environmental Engineering degree, but also to environmental and social justice activism. He is involved with the Australian Youth Climate Coalitian, and last year initiated ‘The Justice Project’ (The J stands for Justice or Jesus). This is a group of young people who ponder and take action on the issues of injustice and the questions of life they see around them, in the spirit of Jesus.

Rowan is a thinker and a doer- always open-minded and active.

Riding above the Gorges de la Nesque, Provence, France

Last year he also bucked the trend by spending six months in France, studying Engineering in French!

Currently in the final year of his degree, Rowan’s Honours project is investigating the way Australian households use water, to provide data for local solutions to using water in sustainable ways, such as grey-water recycling.

I recently had a chat with Rowan about what motivated him to study engineering, and what part he believes the scientists and engineers of the future should play in our global community. It was a very interesting discussion…

The Making of Morals

Daniel R Blume on Flickr

Stephen Begin on Flickr

Can you imagine a world where our moral standards, our laws and customs and our acceptable behaviours are determined not by culturally varied traditions but by what will maximize the wellbeing of all creatures and the earth? It is largely true that ‘questions regarding values, morals and meaning, when distilled are really questions about wellbeing’ and that we already take the wellbeing of conscious creatures into account when defining moral codes. But there are varying cultural standards as to what creates wellbeing. Imagine a world where rapidly developing sciences such as genetics and neurobiology allows us to empirically determine the behaviours that lead to wellbeing or suffering. A world where science helps us objectively define morality.

This is a world that Sam Buckberry has imagined.

DogfromSPACE on Flickr

His reading and scientific studies have led him to form the following view on the place of science in society and where it could take us in the future:

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