“Einstein himself really thought there was no hope in hell for anyone to detect gravitational waves, given how small their amplitude was,” said Professor Scott.
On Wednesday night, Professor Scott and three other Australian physicists received the Prime Minister’s $ 250,000 Science Prize to help prove their existence.
She became the first female physicist to win Australia’s top science prize.
“It is a very important milestone,” she said. “It is incredibly important for young women to be able to see that we can have successful women roles in this area. “I would like to be such an example.”
Professor Scott, Professor Emeritus David Blair, Professor David McClelland and Professor Peter Weich have worked closely together for almost a quarter of a century as leading members of OzGrav, a team of Australian researchers working closely with LIGO detectors in the United States.
In 2015, LIGO for the first time managed to prove the existence of gravitational waves – a feat that won the Nobel Prize in 2017.
To do so, physicists had to turn four-kilometer-long detectors into some of the largest and most sensitive instruments ever created, with an accuracy of one thousandth of a hundredth of a proton.
Each scientist played a different role. Professor Blair developed ways of filtering out disturbances caused by sound waves. Professor McClelland filtered the popcorn from the crackling of quantum mixing. Professor Weich invented a new, super-sensitive laser sensor.
Professor Scott also builds mathematical models that unlock the next stage of gravitational wave astronomy: it works what extraordinary and violent event elsewhere in the universe created the waves.
“We have opened a new window on the universe,” said Professor Scott. “It’s like the moment Galileo first looked through a telescope.”
Professor Mark Dawson, associate director of research translation at the Peter McCallum Center for Cancer, was awarded the $ 50,000 Lifetime Achievement Award by Frank Fenner for his work on epigenetics – the machinery that turns our genes on and off.
Humans have about 20,000 genes. But every cell in our body uses only between 5,000 and 10,000. These genes are included and excluded from both our genetic pattern and our environment; humans are also nature and nurtures.
Think of a modest caterpillar that turns into a butterfly, Professor Dawson suggested. “The genetic code is identical,” he said, “but the epigenetic machine at work means that creatures are very different.”
Professor Dawson made a major contribution to the discovery that these mechanics could be taken over and spoiled by cancer. By controlling the epigenetic machinery, the cancer cell can incorporate genes that give stem cells superpowers: unlimited lifespan, the ability to turn into any cell it wants.
Ten drugs to shut down that control mechanism are in clinical trials for cancer worldwide, including two that he has directly contributed to. He hopes to see them enter the clinic soon.
Professor Thomas Mashmeyer of the University of Sydney received the Prime Minister’s Award of $ 250,000 for Innovation. His research supports catalytic hydrothermal reactors, which convert plastic into petrochemicals, and gel-zinc-bromide batteries, an inexpensive and long-lasting new type of battery; $ 120 million has been raised for the commercialization of both technologies.
Associate Professor of Science Xiaoing Hao of the University of New South Wales has won the $ 50,000 Malcolm Macintosh Physical Scientist of the Year Award for the development of sulfide cesterite solar panels. These panels do not require the scarce or toxic materials found in normal solar panels.
Flinders University associate professor Justin Chalker received a $ 50,000 award for new innovators in developing a new class of sustainable plastics and sulfur-based rubber.
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Liam is a science reporter at the Age and Sydney Morning Herald