Australian scientists recognised for work with ‘super-star implications’

Tuesday, 03 November 2020
PM prizes for science winners

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, has welcomed the awarding of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science last week, saying they have gone to scientists whose work has ”super-star global implications”.

The top prize went to four Australian researchers who played a crucial role in the first detection of gravitational waves in 2015.

Other awards recognised scientists doing pioneering work on solar cells and on processes that reduce or remediate environmental waste from plastics, and to a world-leading cancer researcher.

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, announced on Wednesday 28 October, are Australia’s most prestigious science awards.

Dr Finkel, who chairs the selection committee, said the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science recognised the significance of the detection of gravitational waves as “arguably the biggest achievement in 100 years or ever” in the world of physics.

The best of engineering, mathematics and quantum dynamics had come together to build the Advanced LIGO detector, where the discovery of gravitational waves had modelled the predictions so well that the findings were initially doubted. 

“It validated the very last thing that was left to be proven in Einstein’s theory of relativity, which has been proven to the nth degree of accuracy again and again and again,” Dr Finkel said.

The discovery was announced on 11 February 2016, just a fortnight after Dr Finkel became Australia’s Chief Scientist, and he greeted it at the time as a discovery that eclipsed black holes and dark energy. The distortion in the length of the four-kilometre arms of the LIGO detector was so tiny that if the arms reached from Earth to the nearest star system 4.4 light years away, the fluctuation in the fabric of spacetime would have measured the distance of a single human skin cell.

That precision was made possible by the work of scientists including four Australians.  

Emeritus Professor David Blair at the University of Western Australia predicted parametric instability in the laser beams and helped implement stabilisation methods. Professor David McClelland, Director of the Centre for Gravitational Astrophysics at the Australian National University, led the team that designed and installed a lock acquisition system and hardware for precision routing of the laser beam. Professor of Theoretical Physics at the ANU Susan Scott led research sorting the gravitational wave signals from detector noise. Professor Peter Veitch from the University of Adelaide invented and installed the LIGO’s Hartman sensors which solved a problem relating to the distortion of the laser beam.

Of the other awards announced, Dr Finkel said two recognised the work of scientists in plastic recycling and renewable plastics, reflecting the level of interest in developing technologies to improve sustainability.

The work of University of Sydney’s Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, who won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation, includes a reactor to process waste from pulp, plastics, oil and tyres, and a zinc-bromide gel battery for energy storage.

Associate Professor Justin Chalker at Flinders University, who received the New Innovators prize, invented a new class of renewable, recyclable polymers (plastic and rubber are polymers). Made from a waste byproduct of the petrochemical industry and plant oils such as limonene and canola oil, Associate Professor Justin Chalker’s polymers can be used in mercury and cyanide-free gold mining, and to clean up oil spills.

Dr Finkel said the inventions had global applications and huge environmental significance.

The Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year was awarded to world-leading researcher in thin-film solar photovoltaics Scientia Associate Professor Xiaojing Hao. Her work at the University of New South Wales uses sulphide kesterite to make non-toxic solar cells, continuing the work of Scientia Professor Martin Green’s lab. She and her team have set four world records for pure sulphide kesterite solar cell efficiency.

The Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year went to Professor Mark Dawson at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre whose work has revolutionised the understanding and treatment of blood cancers.

The Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools went to Sarah Fletcher at Bonython Primary School in Canberra, whose teaching is innovative and imaginative, and who plays a big role in supporting and developing other teachers through SEEACT Science Fair. The Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools went to Darren Hamley at Willetton Senior High School in Western Australia, where he has established clubs for solar cars, chess, Rubik’s Cube solving, dolphin and ocean conservation, and astronomy, and was instrumental in including an observatory in the school.

Of the teaching awards, Dr Finkel said, “At the end of the day, the most important thing is teaching the next generation of super stars.

“It is my deepest belief that of all the actors – the students, the parents, the principals, the schools and the teachers – the teachers are the most important.”

Further information on all of the Prizes and the recipients in 2020 is available here.

Last updated: Thursday, 05 November 2020