Prime Minister's Prizes for Science: Faster internet, better GPS, saving frogs, crystals, and guidewires

2018 PM’s Science PrizesLee Berger solved the mystery of the disappearing frogs.
  • The 2018 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, totalling $750,000, have been announced in Canberra.
  • Among the winners is Kurt Lambeck whose initial work in the 1960s on how our planet changes shape enabled accurate planning of space missions.
  • And Lee Berger in Queensland solved the global mystery of disappearing frogs.

The seven winners of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science share $750,000 for feats include creating a faster, more reliable internet, a steerable guidewire for heart surgery, discovering how our planet changes shape, and solving the global mystery of disappearing frogs.

The winners, announced in the Great Hall of Parliament House, are:

  • The $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science to Kurt Lambeck, an Emeritus Professor at the ANU, whose initial work in the 1960s on how our planet changes shape enabled accurate planning of space missions. It also led to a better understanding of the impact of sea level changes on human civilization in the past, present and future. And it will help guide the autonomous vehicles of the future.
  • The $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation to the The Finisar team — Simon Poole, Andrew Bartos, Dr Glenn Baxter and Steven Frisken — for work on switching light for faster, more reliable internet. About half of the world’s internet traffic travels through devices developed by the team and made in Sydney.
  • The $50,000 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year to Lee Berger, a Adjunct Research Fellow of Townsville, James Cook University/ University of Melbourne, for solving the global mystery of disappearing frogs. It was a fungus and not a virus as first thought.
  • The $50,000 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year to Jack Clegg, University of Queensland, for making flexible crystals. Smartphones are packed with crystal semiconductors. These crystals are brittle, but that will change in the future.
  • $50,000 Prize for New Innovators to Geoff Rogers, of Wintermute Biomedical, Melbourne, for building a robotic guidewire that cardiologists can steer with a joystick through the body to reach a damaged artery.
  • $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools goes to Brett Crawford at Warrigal Road State School, Brisbane. All the school’s 50-plus teachers now actively teach science in their classes.
  • $50,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools goes to Scott Sleap of Cessnock High School. He created the Cessnock Academy of STEM Excellence.

Emeritus Professor Kurt Lambeck, the winner of the $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, says the Earth is remarkable

“It has this wonderful record of its history going back to almost its very beginning,” he says.

“Almost everywhere you look, you learn something new about what’s been going on in our planet. It’s a constant journey of discovery.”

His journey started with a Bachelor of Surveying from University of NSW, then a PhD at Oxford University in space geodesy — the precise measurement of the Earth using satellites. It was 1967 and humankind was rushing into space.

He discovered that the gravity field of the Earth was much more complex than anyone had thought. That turned out to be important for spaceflight, because the gravity field determines trajectories of satellites, and we needed better gravity field models to be able to navigate to the moon and beyond.

But for Lambeck, what was more important was the insight that changes in the planet’s gravity field were directly related to plate tectonics, the movements of continents.

The continents are still rebounding from the stress of the ice ages. Parts of Sweden are rising at a metre a century, while southern England is sinking by 5cm a century.

He explains:

Lambeck is now working with archaeologists in Europe, and with precision carbon dating equipment at the ANU, to piece together a more precise understanding of past sea levels.

By measuring change over millions of years, thousands of years, and from day to day, Lambeck and his colleagues can generate the predictions of future sea levels so that local, national, and international governments can plan for a changing future.

In Australia, Lambeck guided the development of a comprehensive monitoring system called the AuScope network. The network consists of about 100 GPS stations, radio telescopes, and laser tracking systems, and enables location tracking to with sub-centimetre accuracy across the country.

“Today we can see the breathing of the Australian continent on a daily basis,” Lambeck says.

“We can watch the land rise and fall with the tides and observe the straining of the old continent as it collides with Southeast Asia. We can detect subtle variations in gravity that could indicate not only deep mineral deposits but also changes in groundwater through time.”

Precise navigation is also essential for autonomous vehicles on the road, on the farm and on mine sites.

“You need to keep them on the road, and if the road is shifting in your reference frame then you’re going to be in trouble, so you need to correct for that,” he says.

Lambeck has received more than 30 international awards and distinctions and was President of the Australian Academy of Science from 2006 to 2010.

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