Unpacking the mysteries of science

ANU 70th anniversary - Seven decades of discovery

Then - The train driver and the nuclear physicist

A prime minister and a nuclear physicist would not usually have a great deal in common. Even less so when the prime minister is a former train driver.

Yet, strolling through a park in London painting a vision for a perfect physics research school, nuclear physicist Mark Oliphant did inspire Prime Minister Benjamin Chifley. His dreams were not entangled in arcane theories, but rooted in the practicalities of workshops that could design and build remarkable technology.

In the postwar era, nuclear physics was the exciting new realm of science to be explored and Oliphant and his new team in Canberra were planning to lead the world by building the fifties' equivalent of the large hadron collider, a synchrocyclotron, and using it to make and study antimatter.

To build such a behemoth would need state-of-the art manufacturing, and the first task would be to create a homopolar generator - the colossal power source needed to drive it.

But Oliphant's grand vision was not to be.

His optimism was met by the reality that this was postwar Australia, and in the middle of a sheep paddock a major piece of infrastructure like the homopolar generator was going to be much harder to achieve compared to the resources available to him in the United States and United Kingdom.

Before it was even built, the homopolar generator had been made outmoded by new technology and the United States and USSR were steaming ahead with their own accelerator projects.

By the 1960s, Oliphant realised the homopolar generator was never going to be the international success he had imagined. But it also wasn't a wasted experience.

The machine, with some modifications, could be put to valuable use - it was, after all, possibly the largest electric generating machine in the world with enough energy to bring a Boeing 707 aircraft travelling at 240 kilometres per hour to a halt in one second in a single pulse.

Long after the fraught development of Oliphant's vision, the culture of technical excellence that he had set up would become his enduring legacy.

While the homopolar generator was never the success he had envisaged, the technical expertise of the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering has underpinned masterpiece after masterpiece of physics experimentation, such as the development of a huge railgun, the heavy ion accelerator that accelerates particles to close to the speed of light, the H1 fusion reactor that creates plasma hotter than the core of the sun and many of the astronomical instruments that populate the Mount Stromlo Observatory.


Now - From little things big things grow

Super-fast, efficient and reliable Internet may no longer be a dream for Australians thanks to one man, Jagadish, and one word, nanotechnology.

"Nanotechnology is essentially engineering the atoms and molecules precisely to get new functions," says Professor Chennupati Jagadish AC.

"At the nano scale, the material properties completely changeand we are manipulating this to create new applications."

This is the field of research Jagadish has pioneered since moving to ANU 25 years ago, during which time he has established a major research program in the field of optoelectronics and nanotechnology.

A global leader in the microscopic world, his current work at the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering is helping to play a big role in a field that many take for granted in day-to-day life when using a smartphone or computer.

"The reason why you have more power in today's smartphone versus the computers of 50 years ago is because of smaller devices," says Jagadish.

"We are making smaller devices. The smaller the devices, the faster you can switch them on and off. You send information as 1,0,1,0,1,0 so, if you can switch them on and off faster, you can send more information.

"The devices that we are working on are used for optical communications and that means faster Internet."

Other real-world applications of Jagadish's nanotechnology research expand much further than faster Internet though.

His research is being applied to everything from higher resolution medical imaging to more efficient solar cells, which one day you might be able to stick on your window to collect energy.

"Really, science is, in my view, a continuum," he says.

"You need to have the fundamental studies. If you don't do fundamental studies, it means ideas will disappear. We need to continue to explore new ideas. Ideas are the future of technology."