This article about some true-blue Aussie scientific and technological innovations.
We can hold our tall poppy heads up high, as we have many scientific innovations to be proud of, per head of population. Cities like Seoul, Beijing and New York City have about as many people as the whole of Australia, yet no-one expects those individual cities to do as much as we already do.
Cities like Tokyo and Shanghai have about 1.5 times as many people as the whole of Australia, yet despite our lower population, our nation does better than those cities in sports, the arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).
Romans chapter 12, verse 2 talks about innovations: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will."
STOP PRESS: a new type of microscope
A new microscope that has taken 20 years to develop ueses a beam of atoms – in this case, the second-smallest atoms in the Universe, helium (symbol He) - instead of light or electrons.
I am doubly pleased to be able to tell you about this new helium microscope today. Often, as soon as one of my science articles is published, I see another news report with an interesting tid-bit that I could have included. Perhaps it is Murphy's Law (see footnote*). This time, the news report appeared 'before' I had finalised this, so I am able to offer it to you on a plate, hot off the press, like a nicely buttered crumpet.
If you focus a beam of moving particles or waves, they will bounce off any "object" in their path and if you can somehow detect where the bouncing particles go, you can get an idea of where and what the "object" is. This is how normal light microscopes work (also radar and sound wave detection devices such as ultrasound scans of our insides or detection of objects on the bottom of the sea.)
Focussing on the idea of microscopes (excuse the Dad joke), scientists have long wanted to see very tiny things such as individual atoms and molecules, and the way living structures are constructed. Up to now, they have had to speculate and extrapolate ideas from other methodologies. To put something under a normal microscope, you need to squash it flat onto a glass slide, and sometimes you have to stain it with dyes so that you can see the different structures, such as those inside a living cell. You are also limited because cannot see anything smaller than the wavelength of light.
Since 1931, scientists have developed a range of electron microscopes, which use a fast-moving beam of electrons instead of light (photons). Electrons, although still extremely tiny, are larger than photons, and according to the laws of physics and maths, a fast-moving wave made of larger particles has a smaller wavelength. Therefore, you can see even tinier and tinier "stuff" with a beam of electrons than with light.
Electron microscopes have several disadvantages. They are expensive and require extremely high-tech equipment. They also need the sample to be very cold (frozen) and have some type of contrast agent added to it – a coating of gold atoms, for example. They also cannot show you colour or other normal contrast – they need something to cast "shadows".
Atoms are much, much larger than electrons (although still far too tiny for us to see), so a fast-moving beam of helium atoms has an even smaller wavelength than an electron beam, and can show even smaller structures.
Moreover, being larger particles with no electric charge, they do not penetrate and destroy what is being observed, so scientists don't need to prepare the sample in any fancy way. Living things or minerals, for example, or even explosive chemicals, can be viewed just as they are without the need to destroy delicate microscopic structures. This type of microscope will give scientists a much better idea of how minute objects are constructed, in ways only imagined before.
Recycling to provide raw materials
A recent opinion article by Professor Veena Sahajwalla of the University of New South Wales describes some of the ways Australian companies have used the high-temperature furnaces used in steel-making to process un-separated waste into a variety of useful materials for our everyday living.
Some of the research she has been involved with, in collaboration with several Australian industries and companies involves: high-temperature processing of waste tyres and plastics to provide the carbon needed in steel-making; recycling of processed glass and automotive waste to produce products used in making metal alloys; and new research into how e-waste can be incinerated under particular conditions to recycle some of the valuable and rare components required for manufacturing new electronic gadgets.
"Solutions such as this are built on fundamental research. Translating this research into commercially viable, environmentally friendly applications promises to position Australia as a leader in high-value niche products. We can achieve this only if researchers and industries work together," says Professor Sahajwalla.
She goes on to quote UN statistics to say that total savings to businesses (by recycling valuable materials) could exceed $US 1 trillion globally. Australian processes are "up there with the best" in working out how to do these things.
New theory of dementia
And in the medical area also, Australians are no slouchers. At the University of Adelaide, medical researchers have grappled with the puzzle of what causes various types of dementia, and they have come up with a new idea that all the mis-folded proteins that do not function properly could be caused by "auto-inflammation", where the body's own immune system goes awry and causes brain cells to die.
Professor Robert Richards believes that instead of many different mechanisms for a range of degenerative brain diseases, each disease may have the same underlying mechanism that starts with the body's own innate immune sysstem.
Remarkably, when he published the results of these ideas from his group, he found that other scientists in other laboratories were coming to similar conclusions, so when they pulled all the evidence together it made a strong case for a new direction in research into the types of drug targets that may help sufferers of a range of diseases.
It all takes a lot of t-i-m-e.
There is plenty of information about historical inventions such as the Hills Hoist, the Victa motor mower, wifi, plastic bank notes, rust-resistant wheat, the cochlear implant etc. These few (of many other) successfully developed and marketed examples appear to disprove the commonly-espoused view that we are good at inventing but not good at commercialisation.
As these examples show, we are still doing it. And they also show it takes a lot of time for science, invention and the workings of the human mind to mature to the stage of a useful item – a timeframe that is longer than most of our family holiday plans, and certainly longer than the term of an elected politician. Let's hope and pray that the current political interest in supporting Australian "innovation" also extends to allowing a long enough t-i-m-e for any new developments to come to fruition.
*Footnote on Murphy's Law
As an example of the above-mentioned Murphy's Law effect, today I saw an article which relates to a popular one on mathematics education recently, if any reader is interested in following up on that topic
Dr Mark Tronson - a 4 min video
Chairman – Well-Being Australia
Baptist Minister 44 years
- 1984 - Australian cricket team chaplain 17 years (Ret)
- 2001 - Life After Cricket (18 years Ret)
- 2009 - Olympic Ministry Medal – presented by Carl Lewis
- 2019 - The Gutenberg - (ARPA Christian Media premier award)
Gutenberg video - 2min 14sec
Married to Delma for 44 years with 4 children and 5 grand children