ANU Spaces – Professor Keith Nugent

15 February 2019

Professor Nugent is our new Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation).

We spoke to him about his passion for x-ray physics, when we mere mortals will gain x-ray vision powers as well as his favourite space on campus.

Professor, welcome to ANU!

Before we get into your new role, tell us a little about your academic area of expertise. What is involved in x-ray physics?

For much of my career I have been doing work with synchrotron light sources. These are large facilities that essentially produce very bright light, including the very short wavelength light known as X-rays, that can be used for a wide range of science and technologies.

One of the most important aspects of applications of a synchrotron is to structural biology - where you coax a biological sample to form crystal, you put the crystal in the synchrotron light source and then look at the way the x-rays bounce off that crystal. The pattern that is produced can be used to determine the atomic-level structure of that molecule, which is important for both fundamental science and for biotechnology. Australia's first Nobel Prize was awarded to the Bragg father and son team in Adelaide for working out the principles of this method, known as crystallography.

However, some of the most interesting molecules simply won't form crystals. New facilities are now available that are known as X-ray Free-Electron Lasers. These are 10,000 million times brighter than an x-ray synchrotron source (for a very short period of time) and are so bright that we should be able to see X-ray scatter off a single molecule. If we can do this, we should be able to see the structure of a single molecule without having to form crystals. That is ambitious and there are many scientific issues to work through, but the scientific prospects are tremendously exciting. For example, you can also use the very short pulses to start to see chemical reactions as they happen at the atomic level.

For me, the really interesting physics is around how these extraordinarily bright X-ray beams interact with matter, how can we measure these phenomena and how do we interpret the data.

We all grew up idolising Superman's x-ray vision powers. When will it become available to mere mortals?

X-rays are simply a very energetic and penetrating form of light that we can't see directly with our eyes.

Now Superman violates all sorts of physical laws and his X-ray vision is an example. If you look at the way that Superman works in the cartoons, you see the x-rays come out of his eyes and somehow he sees. Of course that's physically impossible because the light has to go in to the eyes, not come out of it. So x-ray vision, as pictured in the cartoons, is never going to happen because it doesn't make sense scientifically.

Superman's X-ray vision is a hangover from the fascination of the community that followed the discovery of X-rays in 1895. Indeed, with a speed reminiscent of today, the discovery went "viral" and the first X-ray image was taken in Australia at the University of Melbourne in March 1896.

If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want to be stranded on the island with (superhero or non-superhero)?

First of all, I have to say I'd want to be stranded with my wife. You obviously want to be wherever with your family. But you're probably wanting to know more about who I admire. One of those people I admire, following on with the X-ray theme, is probably Marie Curie because not only did she win two Nobel prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry, she was a pioneering woman in science, going through enormous hurdles to get where she did, but she also did largely unrecognised (and completely unrewarded) innovation and humanitarian work. For example, recognising the medical benefits of X-ray imaging, she went to the front line in the first world war with portable x-ray clinics (known as "Little Curies") to help wounded soldiers. So she was really quite a hero not just in a scientific way but a humanitarian one too. She certainly did research with impact!

Noting you've only just arrived, the reason this article is called 'ANU Spaces' is because we ask people what their favourite place is on campus. Do you have a favourite place around the campus yet? If you do, whereabouts and why?

I've only just come back. I'm a graduate of ANU and the place I always enjoy going back to is University House. Stayed there for a good fraction of my time as a PhD student and of course it's something very constant and lovely about University House. It still feels very familiar and it's just a nice space. So if I have to nominate something first off I think that's where it would be.

Now you also come to ANU with a wealth of experience as a leader. Where would you like to see ANU headed in the area of Research and Innovation?

I'm delighted to be here. It's really nice to be at Australia's leading university, and I'm very excited about the possibilities. We need to make sure that the quality of the research is preserved but also the impact of our research is captured and developed. We need to be clear about the national leadership role of the ANU. We need to ensure that our impact on society is acknowledged and recorded so we can be sure to demonstrate how we help our society as broadly as we can.

I used Marie Curie earlier because she was an outstanding scientist but she didn't limit herself to that. She did many other fantastic things that make her an outstanding human being and she's the sort of person we should surely emulate.

What other things would you like the ANU community to know about, about yourself?

I am very much looking forward to exploring and appreciating the full range of research that is undertaken at ANU. ANU is a truly comprehensive university and we must continue to ensure that the contribution from all disciplines is truly valued and appreciated.

I am very aware that some areas of research - the sciences in particular - are relatively easily subjected to measurement and metrication. I am very aware of the limitations of these systems and I am committed to ensuring that we work very hard to ensure that, while these artificial measures may inform us, they do not drive us.

We need to keep working to ensure that the humanities and social sciences continue to be properly valued and supported; these are areas that are central to the future and the mission of the ANU and to the future of Australia and the world. The solutions to the problems facing us, such as global warming or the obesity epidemic, lie largely in the HASS disciplines, not STEM.

What this is really saying, I think, is that ANU needs to continue to find ways to allow the disciplines to genuinely and productively work together; if we can do that we will have done something really special.