Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Surf, physics, food ideas prove science is golden - Brisbane Times

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''Saved lives'' ... Rob Brander of the University of NSW. Photo: Ted Reed

A SCIENTIST known as Dr Rip, who has helped save lives in the surf; researchers who may have solved the mystery of why we exist in this particular part of the universe; and a team that has raised the alarm about a future shortage of phosphorus, a nutrient essential for food production.

These Sydney scientists were among researchers who won Australian Museum Eureka Prizes at a gala ceremony in Moore Park last night.

Nineteen prizes worth $180,000 were handed out for science teaching, mentoring, innovation, journalism and photography, as well as for many research disciplines.

Suzanne Cory, a world-renowned geneticist who is the president of the Australian Academy of Science and a former director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, was awarded the Eureka Prize for Leadership in Science.

''Professor Cory's achievements as a scientist and scientific leader place her in the highest ranks globally,'' said Frank Howarth, the director of the Australian Museum.

Rob Brander, of the University of NSW, who has studied the science of the surf, won the Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Australian Science Research.

Well-known at beaches along the coast for putting purple dye into water to track the movement of rips, he has helped tackle the 25,000 surf rescues and 90 drownings occurring each year in Australia.

He has given countless talks on beach safety, developed a website, made a YouTube video and written a book, Dr Rip's Essential Beach Book: Everything You Need to Know About Surf, Sand and Rips.

''It is no exaggeration to say Dr Brander has saved lives through his research,'' Dr Howarth said.

If John Webb, of the University of NSW, and his team, which won the Eureka Prize for Scientific Research, are correct, they will have shaken the foundations of physics.

By analysing observations of more than 300 distant galaxies, they have found that one of the fundamental constants of nature is not a constant.

This fine-structure constant, alpha - a measure of the strength of electromagnetism - seems to vary across the universe, getting weaker in one direction and stronger in the other.

''The results astonished us,'' Professor Webb said last year.

If confirmed, it means the laws of physics could be different elsewhere in the cosmos.

Research on phosphorus by Dana Cordell and Stuart White, of the University of Technology, Sydney, winners of the Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, have sparked international concern about how long the main source of this element - phosphate rock - will last.

There is no substitute for phosphorus in crop growth and its scarcity threatens the world's food production unless the resource is managed sustainably, Dr Cordell and Professor White have argued.

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