Off their trolley problem

Why driverless cars don’t care about your ethical dilemmas

If you’ve been paying attention to the media stories about driverless cars, you will have heard the concerns about what driverless cars will do when faced with ethical dilemmas, scenarios in which the car’s computer program has to pick between different options of who to kill when faced with an impending collision. The problem is a variation of the famous, philosophical ‘trolley problem’.

The trolley problem is a thought experiment intended to discuss the ethics of action versus inaction in a no-win situation. The most common variant of the trolley problem goes:

A runaway trolley/train/tram is speeding down railway tracks. Ahead of it, five people are tied to the tracks and are unable to escape. The trolley will kill them. You are standing near a lever in the train yard. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be diverted down a separate track. However, there is also one person tied up and unable to escape on the diverting track. You have two options: do nothing and the trolley kills five people, or pull the lever and the trolley kills only one. What do you do?

There are many interesting variants of the trolley problem, including ones that require you to decide whether you would push a fat man off a bridge in the name of the greater good. (The kind of people who come up with these questions worry me…)

Pretty car

Tesla Model S — semi-autonomous, and, if it takes after the guy it’s named after, may develop an unhealthy attachment to pigeons

Various people have raised concerns that, under certain circumstances, a driverless car could be faced with a similar dilemma. In an impending, fatal crash, does the car swerve to avoid a pedestrian, thus killing the occupant of the car, or does the car stay on course and kill the pedestrian, allowing the occupant to survive? How do we program ethics into the car’s computer?

Like myself, most of the engineers that I posed this question to responded, “That’s a stupid question.”

The trolley problem is a highly contrived scenario that is so abstracted as to have lost all basis in reality. The problem is constructed such that you have no other options. There is no way to stop the trolley, there is no way to warn the people on the track or get them get them out of the way, the trolley cannot be derailed by pulling the leaver only half way… In real life, and thus, on the road, the trolley problem does not apply.

When this topic of conversation was brought up by some concerned acquaintances, the conversation went something as follows:

Them: What would you do if your car was going to crash and you had to decide between killing a cyclist or a little old lady?
Me: I’d put on the brakes.
Them: What if your brakes have failed?
Me: I’d put on the hand brake.
Them: Both sets of brakes have failed.
Me: Why would I be driving a car with no working brakes?
Them: It’s hypothetical. Let’s say you forgot to get it serviced.
Me: I’d cut the engine and use that to slow down.
Them: You can’t do that.
Me: Why not?
Them: You just can’t.
Me: And I really can’t steer between the granny and the cyclist?
Them: No. You’re between two walls.
Me: I’d steer the car so as to graze along the wall and let friction stop it.
Them: You can’t do that.
Me: Why not?
Them: You just can’t.
Me: Your question is stupid.

I have only been driving for around 10 years, but in that time I have never had to make an ethical decision about who to kill in what situation. No one else I have talked to has ever had to make a similar decision, and, I would be willing to bet, neither have you. If there was any real chance of us having to make ethical decisions about who to kill on the road, it would be part of drivers license exams. (For the love of God, please don’t mention this to the WA government. We don’t need an ethics test to go along with the road-law test, the practical exam, the driving-hours log book, the hazard perception test, the six-month curfew and the two-year probation.)

Like a human driver, the car should be working to avoid any sort of crash, and an autonomous car is likely to be a hell of a lot better at it than a human. With all-round sensors like having eyes in the back of your head, and reaction times that no human could ever hope to match, driverless cars are likely to make our roads far safer than they are now by removing the most failure-prone part of any vehicle, the squishy lump in the driver’s seat.

And how are the engineers working on Google’s self-driving car dealing with the trolley problem and ethical decisions? They are ignoring them, and are designing the car to avoid any crash as best it can. If the situation has developed such that the car has to choose who to run over, the car is so out of control that the question is rendered moot.

Whoever styled the Google cars should not be allowed to style cars.

“Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they make me drive meatbags to work. Call that job satisfaction, ’cause I don’t.”

Driverless cars will not be infallible, no human-made system is. But they have the potential to make our roads safer, and our journeys far more pleasant. My only worry is that the car’s software will be vulnerable to hackers, and that one day, when deciding whether to hit the cyclist or the little old lady, my car attempts a 7-10 split.

Gravitational Waves are Not the Ultimate Test of General Relativity

Last year’s ground breaking gravitational wave detections generated some of the widest media coverage of a scientific discovery to date. Many articles and reports described the detection as the “ultimate” test of general relativity, the “final” test of general relativity, or confirmation of Einstein’s “last” prediction. For a theory that is 100 years old, that was developed by one of the most celebrated physicists of all time, and has survived every experiment thrown at it, you could be forgiven for thinking that general relativity is done and dusted. However, general relativity is far from facing its “ultimate” test.

Gravitational Waves — another success for General Relativity, but not the final test.

Gravitational Waves — another success for General Relativity, but not the final test.

Over the past century, general relativity has been put through its paces with some of the brightest minds on the planet developing new ways to test it. General relativity explains anomalies in the planet Mercury’s orbit around the Sun, why the universe cannot be static, and the way star-light is deflected by massive bodies like the Sun and distant galaxies. Predictions of general relativity have been tested using high-precision gyroscopes on satellites orbiting the earth and atomic clocks, by timing the orbits of distant neutron stars, and now, by the direct detection of gravitational waves. General relativity has survived every test, passing with flying colours. Even the fact that GPS functions properly is evidence of the success of general relativity.

But the nature of the scientific method means that no test that general relativity survives will be its ultimate test. Scientists will never stop testing general relativity until it fails. We know general relativity is not the final solution to a theory of everything, and we are reasonably certain that general relativity must fail at some point. While general relativity has been spectacularly successful in describing the large-scale workings of the cosmos (such as solar systems, galaxies, and the entire visible universe), it does not work on the small scale (atoms, nuclei, and fundamental particles), for which we need quantum mechanics. General relativity does not tell us what goes on inside a black hole, or at the moment of the Big Bang, because, in those situations, we are dealing with much smaller scales where quantum mechanics comes in to play. While we are very aware of general relativity’s ultimate limitations, this does not give us a very convenient starting point for developing a replacement theory. Like an engineer investigating the collapse of a bridge, if we can find the exact point of failure, we are better able to develop a solution. Because of this, many tests of general relativity today seek to determine the exact point at which general relativity breaks.

Most of the current approaches to breaking general relativity assume the devil is in the detail, and aim to make more precise measurements of previously tested phenomena. As more and more gravitational wave events are detected and studied, they will provide ever more stringent tests of the predictions made by general relativity. One research group wants to measure the precise orbits of different types of metal around the Earth, while another wants to time the fall of different types of atoms, things that general relativity says should show no difference between the different materials and atoms. The ESA’s ACES mission aims to make the most precise measurements ever of gravitational time dilation and gravitational redshift. If general relativity passes these tests, physicists will celebrate another success for a brilliant theory and for human intellect, and will then set about designing the next test. However, if, for any of these experiments, the predictions of general relativity do not match the data, physicists will celebrate the discovery of the breaking point, and the dawning of a new era in our understanding of the nature of the universe.

In order to get to space, throw yourself at the planet, and miss.

High precision space- and ground-based experiments aim to test General Relativity in minute detail

Rest assured, articles claiming “[Some experiment] is the ultimate/final test of Einstein’s greatest theory” are not yet a thing of the past.

Great Australians — Anthony Michell

We Australians excel at remembering and celebrating our sporting heroes, from cricketers to particularly successful race horses, but are not so good at celebrating the great people who helped build our civilization, particularly when those builders are Australian. Today, I want to celebrate the birthday of a revolutionary Australian engineer, A. G. M. Michell.

 

Innovator and Inventor

Anthony George Maldon Michell was an Australian engineer who made enormous contributions to a wide range of engineering sciences, from publishing the seminal work on structural optimization, to the invention of the Fluid-film Thrust Bearing. Michell’s inventions operate quietly in the background, but have made a huge impact on our every-day lives.

That's the guy.

Anthony George Maldon Michell (21 June 1870 – 17 February 1959) — engineer

Early life and education

Michell was born in London in 1870 while his parents were visiting from Australia, but grew up and attended primary school in Victoria. He returned to England to attend Grammar school and spent a year studying at Cambridge. He returned to Australia in 1889 to study engineering at the University of Melbourne.

Bearing the load

Of all of Michell’s inventions and innovations, the one that has had the greatest impact is the Michell Bearing, or Fluid-film Thrust Bearing, which he patented in 1905. Michell created a bearing with tilting load-pads that would maintain a thin film of lubricating oil between the metal surfaces. He mathematically derived the pressure distribution in the oil so that the pivot for the tilting pads could be optimally placed to ensure that the pads tilt automatically, under varying load, to the most efficient geometry. At the start of the 20th century, this bearing was revolutionary (pun intended). It could sustain enormous thrust loads with minimal wear and without overheating, while being only one tenth of the size of the bearings it replaced.

Under pressure, do do do didi do do...

Michell thrust bearing — the pads tilt automatically to the most efficient geometry

The low-friction of Michell’s bearings made them much more efficient. Within a decade they had found almost universal application in generators and ships’ thrust blocks. There was some reluctance by the British to adopt Michell Bearings in their ships, until the discovery that the German Navy were using Michell Bearings in their WWI U-Boats, which gave the U-Boats a range and speed that surprised the Royal Navy.

As well as being efficient, the low-wear of Michell Bearings mean they need little maintenance and are very reliable. A Michell Bearing installed at the Holtwood Hydroelectric Power Plant in Pennsylvania in 1912, supporting 165 tonnes of turbine and 40 tonnes of water pressure, is still in operation today. That bearing has been estimated to have a maintenance-free life of over 1000 years.

Michell Bearings, for their strength, efficiency, and reliability are still used on all large ships, power plants and turbines today.

Going with the flow

Another of Michell’s brilliant inventions is the Cross-flow turbine, which has found applications in hydroelectricity generation. This turbine is not used as often as the more common Kaplan, Francis, or Pelton type turbines because it has a lower maximum efficiency. However, cross-flow turbines have a much better efficiency than any of these three when operating at partial load. This gives cross-flow turbines an advantage in small-scale hydroelectric power generation, in situations, such as small rivers, where water flow and pressure can vary widely over the year. Cross-flow turbines are also easier to build, are easier to maintain, and are partially self-cleaning due to the way in which water flows through the blades of the rotor.

Does that count as giving credit?

Cross-flow turbine — image blatantly stolen from Wikipedia

Other innovations

Michell’s other notable innovations include the first published work on structural optimization. Unfortunately, Michell was ahead of his time and this field of research did not gain momentum until computers became a useful research tool some half-century later.

Michell also designed a crankless engine that drew on his work on the thrust bearing and used slipper-blocks on a slanted wobble-plate to convert the reciprocal motion of the pistons into rotary motion of an output shaft. By eliminating the crankshaft, connecting rods, and associated bearings, Michell’s crankless engines could be lighter and more compact than conventional automotive and stationary engines. Proper dynamic design of the wobble-plate also made the engine very low in vibration. Despite successful demonstrations, improved efficiency, and several licensed derivatives, the crankless engine failed to gain wide-spread acceptance and the company formed to produce and market the technology was placed into receivership.

Might be pushing it a bit there...

Michell’s crankless engine — image stolen from somewhere else

Later life

Michell was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and received several prestigious awards including the Kernot Memorial Medal for distinguished engineering achievement in Australia, and the James Watt International Medal. He continued to make major contributions in engineering research until his death in 1959 at the age of 88.

 

When asked to list great Australian inventions, most Australians might include the Hills Hoist, Vegemite, the Victa lawnmower, and not much else. Michell, and his bearings that transformed movement and power in the 20th century, deserve to be amongst the first things a proud Australian should include on their list.

What the Detection of Gravitational Waves Means

Unless you live under a rock, the announcement in February of this year of the detection of Gravitational Waves by LIGO cannot have escaped your attention. Scientists around the world celebrated the achievement, and public curiosity about what all the scientists were yelling about was high enough that the world’s media ran the story for several days. Physicists and science communicators, whether they had anything to do with the discovery or not, were called upon to explain to the public what all the fuss was about.

If two Black Holes crash in deep space, and there is no detector to hear them, do they still make a Gravitational Wave?

The enormous release of energy from the collision of two Black Holes, detected for the first time

For a public that had never heard of Gravitational Waves before the announcement of their discovery, a key question that needed answering was, “So what does it mean?” Many scientists and science communicators did an outstanding job of answering this question, but their responses often left out an important element, that is, they did not answer the implied question, “what does it mean for me?”

Following the announcement earlier this week of a second Gravitational Wave detection (and another detection candidate), I want to take the opportunity to outline some of the ways in which the discovery of Gravitational Waves directly affects the average member of the public, but in the interest of providing a complete answer, I will first recap the importance of the discovery from a scientific perspective.

1) Amazing Achievement

First of all, the detection of Gravitational Waves is significant because it is direct confirmation of a prediction made 100 years ago by Albert Einstein. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is the best model physicists have for describing the action of gravity and the behaviour of the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. Scientists constantly try to invent new experiments to push our understanding of the universe to the breaking point. It is by knowing the point at which our understanding of the universe fails that we are able to make the greatest progress. General Relativity has survived every test it has been subjected to for 100 years. Even the fact that GPS functions properly is a demonstration that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is correct.

In 1916, Einstein used General Relativity to predict that bodies orbiting each other, such as the Sun and Earth or two black holes, warp spacetime such that energy from the two bodies is carried away as ripples in the very fabric of the cosmos. These are Gravitational Waves, and their detection is not only another success for Einstein and General Relativity, but for the power of human ingenuity.

Insert fat joke here.

Gravitational Waves are ripples in spacetime caused by massive bodies in orbit

The LIGO detectors are the most sensitive instruments ever created and represent the culmination of 50 years of work by thousands of scientists. Although the first of the detected Gravitational Wave events represents an explosion 50 times more powerful than the power output of all the stars in the universe combined, the energy of the event has spread out and weakened during the 1.4 billion light-year trip to Earth, and so the LIGO detection represents the smallest amount of energy ever successfully detected. The very fact that humanity has the ability to detect Gravitational Waves is something we, as a species, can be proud of.

Couldn't think of funny alt-text.

The Advanced LIGO detectors in Livingston and Hanford

2) A New Spectrum, a New Science

The two confirmed and one candidate Gravitational Wave detections represent the beginning of a new era in studying the universe, a new way of doing astronomy, Gravitational Wave Astronomy.

All of astronomy, and everything we have discovered about our universe through astronomy, has been done using light. Whether we use radio telescopes, optical telescopes, or gamma-ray telescopes, all of these devices detect energy from the electro-magnetic spectrum, they all detect some form of light. Gravitational Waves are not a type of light. They exist in a completely different spectrum.

The Gravitational Wave spectrum gives astronomers a completely new way of studying the universe because the properties of Gravitational Waves are very different to those of electro-magnetic waves. Unlike light, Gravitational Waves are not absorbed by matter. They pass unhindered through the Earth, interstellar gas clouds, and entire galaxies. Unlike light, they cannot be blocked by stuff getting in the way. Gravitational Waves allow us to see past the bright glare of galaxies, and through vast interstellar dust clouds to corners of the universe our other telescopes will never be able to see.

We can also use Gravitational Waves to study things that don’t emit light. As far as our current theoretical understanding tells us, the collision of two black holes, like the Gravitational Waves events seen so far, should not emit any light. These events, and events like them, can only be studied using the Gravitational Wave spectrum.

Since the end of its first, and now famous, observing run, LIGO has been undergoing upgrades that will roughly double the sensitivity of the detector. With this boost in sensitivity, and based on the three events detected so far, Gravitational Wave physicists expect LIGO to detect around one event per week when it is switched back on later this year. With that amount of data, Gravitational Wave Astronomy will become a field in its own right, and one that will revolutionize our understanding of the universe by studying regions of the cosmos previously invisible to us.

woooooOOOOP!

Gravitational Waves open up a new spectrum with which to study the universe

3) What it means for me

The detection is an amazing technological achievement and Gravitational Wave detectors are some of the most advanced pieces of equipment in the world. To be able to build their detector, scientists and engineers have had to invent new technologies along the way, and these new technologies have a huge range of spin-offs and applications that will impact on our every-day lives.

To build the LIGO detectors, super-reflective mirror coatings and polishing techniques had to be developed, vibration isolators that guard against everything from minor earthquakes to people coughing had to be built, hyper-precise lasers and sensitive read-out systems had to be invented, and all of this had to operate in hard vacuum, even special super-hard glues had to be formulated. To actually detect the signal, advanced analysis software had to be written. This is only a taste of the work involved. The complete list of innovations by Gravitational Wave scientists would take dozens of pages to list like this, and I don’t even know most of them!

With this type and variety of advanced technology in the works, it is almost inevitable that other applications would be found for the scientists’ innovations. Just one example from the University of Western Australia, where I am studying for my PhD, is the Rio Tinto Gravity Gradiometer. This new technology, which will detect ore bodies from an aeroplane by measuring tiny changes in the Earth’s gravitational field, spun-off from Gravitational Wave research at UWA.

This thing sits in the lab across the hall from me.

The VK1 airborne Gravity Gradiometer will detect ore bodies below the ground, and spun-out from Gravitational Wave research

Over the coming decades, technology originally developed for Gravitational Wave detectors will be worth billions of dollars, create many thousands of jobs, and will enrich our every-day lives for generations to come.

 

If you’d like to learn more, you can go here to watch PhD comics explain Gravitational Waves.

Great Australians — Ruby Payne-Scott

We Australians excel at remembering and celebrating our sporting heroes, from cricketers to particularly successful race horses, but are not so good at celebrating the great people who helped build our civilization, particularly when those builders are Australian. Today, I want to celebrate the birthday of a brilliant Australian scientist, Ruby Payne-Scott.

 

Southern Star

Ruby Payne-Scott is remembered as one of Australia’s most outstanding physicists. As well as contributing to other sciences, she was a pioneer of radio astronomy and made major discoveries about the nature of radio emissions from the Sun. Payne-Scott also has the distinction of being the first female radio astronomer.

Ruby Payne-Scott (28 May 1912 – 25 May 1981) — Physicist, pioneering astronomer

Ruby Payne-Scott (28 May 1912 – 25 May 1981) — Physicist, pioneering astronomer

Early life and education

Ruby was born in 1912 in the town of Grafton, NSW. She demonstrated remarkable talent at school and moved to live with her aunt in Sydney, where she could get a better education. She was awarded honours in mathematics and botany, and won two scholarships to the University of Sydney where she studied physics, chemistry, mathematics, and botany. As was typical of the era, Ruby was often the only woman in her classes.

Research

Despite the prejudice and difficulty in getting a job that female physicists faced at the time (compounded by the Great Depression), Ruby’s excellent academic performance landed her a job as a physicist on the University of Sydney’s new cancer research project. One project she worked on was to determine the effect that the Earth’s magnetic field had on the vital processes of living beings. Working with William Love she cultivated chick embryos in magnetic fields up to 5000 times stronger than the Earth’s field. They found no observable differences in the chicks and determined that the magnetism of the Earth had little or no effect on living creatures.

The cancer research project closed down in 1935, and Ruby was forced to take one of the few career options open to educated women at the time, teaching. She completed a diploma of teaching and started working at a school in South Australia. Ruby was constantly alert for ways to get back into physics and eventually managed to land a job with Australian Wireless Amalgamated, a major hirer of physicists. Although she was hired as a librarian, Ruby managed to get involved in some research projects in the company’s standards laboratory and eventually worked her way into full-time research.

In 1939, Australia, following Britain’s lead, declared war on Germany. The CSIR (the precursor to the CSIRO) was charged with developing an Australian radar capability. As happened in Britain and the USA, mobilization for war created a shortage of trained men and provided women with the opportunity to break into jobs and careers they were previously bared from. Ruby and another woman, Joan Freeman, managed to get hired to work as researchers in the CSIR’s new Radiophysics laboratory. The women excelled in their roles, under the leadership of another great Australian physicist, Joe Pawsey, and both Ruby and Joan later commented that their colleagues treated them as “one of the boys”. The two women mainly had to deal with discrimination from administrators and petty bureaucrats who imposed absurd and unfair rules such as banning women from smoking or wearing shorts, rules which Ruby took the lead in breaking. Ruby even married her Husband, Bill Holman Hall, in secret in 1944 because married women were not allowed to hold permanent positions in government agencies.

Wartime radar research in Britain had discovered that the Sun occasionally produced significant amounts of radio waves. Excited by this, in their spare time Ruby and Joe Pawsey ran some experiments to follow up on this discovery, but did not have the right equipment to make the observations. When the war ended the Radio Physics laboratory was due to be scrapped, so the team put together an application to continue as a radio physics research division, concentrating on rain making and radio astronomy. At the time, radio astronomy was a very new field of research and the astronomy community showed very little interest. Despite this, the CSIR decided to fund radio physics and Australia remains a world leader in radio astronomy to this day.

Along with Joe Pawsey and Lindsay McCready, Payne-Scott used decommissioned radar equipment to make detailed radio-frequency observations of the Sun. This small team was the first to construct a radio-astronomy interferometer. Radio interferometers greatly increase the resolution of their observations by using a long baseline between two or more radio antennas. The CSIR team managed to construct an interferometer using only one antenna.

Great TV reception... Just had to wait for Australia to get TV.

Decommissioned radar antenna at Dover Heights, run by CSIR Radiophysics.

The radar antenna they were using was a coastal installation mounted on a sea-cliff. The antenna received radio signals directly from the Sun but also from reflections off the sea below. This simulated a baseline of around 200 metres between two antennas and allowed Payne-Scott, Pawsey and McCready to determine that solar radio radiation was coming from patches of the Sun that had sun-spots, a major discovery that boosted Australia’s international scientific reputation. The team also showed that the Sun’s corona has a temperature of over a million degrees centigrade, a phenomenon that remains a mystery to astrophysicists. Payne-Scott is also credited with the discovery of type I and type III solar outbursts.

Built to defend against the land of the rising Sun.

Dover heights sea-cliff interferometer — used to study the Sun

Workplace activist and career cut short

Throughout her time at the CSIR and its successor the CSIRO, Payne-Scott was an active advocate of equal rights and pay for women. She fearlessly and vocally opposed women’s workplace restrictions and pay reductions, clashing with CSIRO chairman Sir Ian Clunies Ross on several occasions. Eventually her secret marriage was discovered by CSIRO administrators and she was demoted to a temporary position. Payne-Scott left the CSIRO for good in 1951 (aged 39) to give birth to her son Peter.

Later life

Payne-Scott had a second child, a daughter named Fiona, and in 1963 returned to teaching. She retired in 1974 and died in 1981 at the age of 69.

Today, Ruby’s legacy is remembered in the CSIRO by the Payne-Scott award which is given to support the careers of women researchers. Her influence on radio astronomy and her discoveries means that her name is known by a large section of the Australian astronomy community, though they may not be completely aware of how hard Ruby had to fight to be able to do her ground-breaking research.

Who comes up with these Google doodles?

Google celebrated Ruby’s 100th birthday.

In 2012, on what would have been her 100th birthday, Ruby Payne-Scott was celebrated with a Google doodle. However, this great Australian is still completely unknown to the majority of Australian people. Ruby, her research, and her fight for women’s rights deserves greater recognition.

More information on the life and work of Ruby Payne-Scott can be found at the CSIRO Staff Association, National Archives, or Payne-Scott’s Wikipedia page.

The Value of a PhD

Stop telling me to “get a real job”: PhDs drive economic growth, as well as the progress of human knowledge

As a PhD student, questions I am often asked very shortly after “What do you do for a living?” include “What’s the point of that?” and “So when are you going to get a real job?” Science communication practice over the past couple of years (such as competing in 3-Minute Thesis and FameLab) has helped me to come up with concise answers to the first of these questions that satisfy the majority of my interrogators. I am also quick to point out that studying for a PhD is a real job and to explain the benefits of PhDs and academics to the nation. However, people often seem to disagree with my assertions about the contribution of PhDs to the public and to the economy, to the extent that many will repeat the question the next time they see me.

PhDs in your life

Everywhere you look you will find technology that was invented or developed by people with PhDs. The technologies your smartphone and computer are based on cannot be built without a working knowledge of quantum mechanics, GPS would fail without knowing how to apply Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, and the medical practices that keep you healthy are only possible due to our understanding of the immensely complex system that is the human body. Tens, hundreds, or thousands of PhDs have contributed to the technologies and services that you rely on and enjoy every day. You owe your health and wellbeing to the diligent research of generations of PhDs.

A PhD student has many similarities with a tradesman’s apprentice. The apprentice/student learns the tools and skills of their trade guided by the knowledge and experience of their master/supervisor, producing useful work as they learn. Just as we expect an apprentice electrician or machinist to quickly gain a measurable level of competence, we expect PhD students to make significant contributions to scientific and technological progress from early on in their candidature (continuing this analogy, PhDs have a “post-doc” period similar to an apprentice’s journeyman years).

A common accusation I received before I learned to explain the significance of my work quickly (and still receive on occasion) is that my chosen field of research is so narrow that it is of no use or interest to anyone else. It is often the case that one scientist’s research can seem so focussed on one objective that it has no impact elsewhere. This is a matter of necessity. We live in such a rich and complicated cosmos that, today, the only way one person is able to make significant progress is to pick a direction and attack it. However, the accusation that their research is of no wider significance fails to take into account that we scientists do not work alone. We work in a team, playing our individual part in a global human effort to understand the world we live in and to improve our quality of life. No science exists in isolation, and each narrow field of research contributes to the growing expanse of collective human knowledge and progress.

But the accusation of narrowness is false too. The seemingly tight focus of my research is built upon a broad foundation of other skills and knowledge. I view my growing expertise in my field as something resembling a pyramid, with the narrow apex supported by a broad and sturdy base. When I finish my PhD, I will be the world expert in optically-sensed stabilized microwave reference dissemination systems, I will be a world expert in stabilized time and frequency transfer, an expert in microwave and optical transmission, fibre-optics, and radio-telescope engineering, all supported by a strong competence in electronics, computer aided design and simulation, and a variety of fields of physics including wave mechanics and General Relativity.

This only took slightly less effort than the Giza one.

Focused research is supported by a broad background of skills and expertise.

The job of a researcher is to seek answers and improve our understanding of the world we live in, to look forward and drive our progress as a species. Scientific research is the only defence humanity has against threats to our way of life, or even our survival.

The economic argument

I have met many people who, disconcertingly for me, view PhDs as a waste of taxpayers’ money. Indeed, government treasuries are often keen to see proof that their investment in research and in PhDs is not being wasted, or couldn’t be better spent elsewhere. In the United States, Congress has demanded that the National Science Foundation “better articulate the value of grants to the national interest.” Recognizing that failure to communicate the return-on-investment of grants places us at risk of losing government and public support, researchers have challenged themselves to come up with scientific evidence on the impact of government investment in research. Late last year, a study published in Science demonstrated a significant way in which PhDs (and thus, the government grants that supported them) make an impact on the economy.

The study showed that PhDs disproportionately gained jobs in high-productivity, high-payroll establishments performing research and development, firms that that typically have a much greater economic impact. The study also showed that the majority of PhDs gained jobs close to where they had studied. Together, the evidence shows that PhDs make a substantial contribution to the economy that supported them, and that investment in PhD funding and research grants is well-founded.

More broadly, there is much historical evidence to show that research drives economic growth. Scientific and technological research produces new technology and ideas, that create new products and services, that create new jobs.

 

PhDs are no less real jobs than a trade apprenticeship. PhD students work hard to contribute not just to the economy, but to increasing knowledge and progress for the benefit of all humanity.

Floating in the Sea of Tranquility

Why we should build a swimming pool on the Moon

We choose to build a pool on the Moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

A recent special issue of the New Space journal reported on the reasons and methods for constructing a permanently inhabited lunar colony, and that it could be done within the next few years and for around $10 billion.

On Sundays we go outside and flip off everyone on Earth.

A bargain at only $10 billion.

A lunar colony would provide invaluable experience and technological development for future missions to Mars and beyond, as well as being extremely scientifically useful. The only reason moon colonization missions are not on the cards is because NASA believe they have the budget to get to the Moon, or Mars, but not both. However, as the contributors to the New Space journal have argued, thanks to developments in 3D-printing, life support systems, and reusable launch vehicles, this is no longer the case.

While we’re building that moon colony, we should equip it with an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

That would be really cool

As already demonstrated by Randall Munroe of xkcd What If, a swimming pool on the Moon would be really cool. Due to the low gravity a swimmer wearing fins could leap 4 or 5 metres out of the water. The shear awesomeness of this endeavour would stimulate great interest from the public. A pool would also be a huge morale boost to the crews of the Moon base during their long missions.

Thanks to reusable vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon, the cost of a flight to an established base on the Moon would fall to a few tens of millions of dollars, putting it in the price range of space tourism trips for eccentric billionaires, and providing a supplementary source of funding.

It would also provide scientists with an opportunity to categorically prove whether or not a human can run on water in low-gravity as predicted by this paper.

Still pretty weird though.

Not even the weirdest thing I’ve seen in the lab.

The technological challenge has massive benefits

Building a swimming pool on the Moon, especially an Olympic-sized one, would be an immense technological challenge, but the technologies developed and lessons learned during this program would kick-start deep space exploration and industries such as asteroid mining.

An Olympic-sized pool of water would be too stupidly expensive to transport to the Moon, even assuming the most optimistic forecasts of SpaceX’s launch cost reductions. The materials to build the pool and the water to fill it would have to be mined from the Moon itself. The tools and techniques developed to mine these resources would have direct application to asteroid mining, an industry that promises to supply huge quantities of rare and valuable minerals without destroying ecosystems back home on Earth. Obtaining resources in this way is a necessary precursor to humanity establishing bases on other worlds.

If they can get those barge landings sorted.

A properly reusable vehicle like the Falcon 9 Heavy will revolutionize space travel.

Mining huge quantities of water from celestial bodies is a necessary step in the production of rocket fuel to support manned missions into deep space. The surest way to reduce the effects and risks of space flight to humans is to reduce the flight time. To do this, we would need refuelling stations at strategic points throughout the solar system. Also, permanent human habitation will require colonists to work to reduce their dependence on supplies from Earth, and this means obtaining huge quantities of water to grow the food necessary to sustain a colony. The Moon would be the first small step of humanity’s giant leap out into the cosmos.

The structure required to house an Olympic swimming pool and protect it from the vacuum of space would be far larger than anything currently envisioned for missions to the Moon or Mars in either the short- or mid-term. However, if humanity is really going to colonize Mars, or other bodies in the solar system, then we are going to need large spaces such as this to play and exercise. If we can’t build large recreation spaces like this one, permanent human habitation of deep-space colonies will not be a realistic goal.

As with humanity’s other forays into space, the technologies developed during the project will have useful, important, and lucrative spin-offs on Earth. For example, waste management and resource recycling systems, of critical importance to a Moon colony, would be applied on Earth to reduce our environmental footprint and improve sustainability.

 

Building a swimming pool on the Moon will hone the tools and techniques that humanity needs to develop if we are going to expand into deep space and reap the benefits of becoming a truly space-faring race, while the scale of the goal will inspire scientists and the public alike. Big goals spur big leaps in technological and scientific progress, and I think you’d have to agree, this would be pretty cool.

The Wright Stuff

A lesson in innovation from the Wright Brothers

The Australian government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda webpage asserts: “Innovation is at the heart of a strong economy — from IT to healthcare, defence and transport—it keeps us competitive, at the cutting edge, creates jobs and maintains our high standard of living.This recent article from ABC Radio National titled Curiosity, the mother of innovation argues that if we want to stimulate innovation, we need to encourage curiosity. In the article, Peter Macinnis takes his cue from the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention”:

“Necessity, or perceived necessity, won’t do as a starting point for improving the world. What we really need is innovation, and that stems from curiosity, making it the mother of innovation, while serendipity is the midwife and necessity is a mere passing commentator. The message for me as an educator is that if we want innovation to go on into the future, far past my lifetime, we need to ensure that the next generation acquires a strong streak of curiosity.”

The piece is very good and I recommend that you listen to the whole thing, but while I was listening to it, a particularly famous story of innovation and invention came to mind.

As an aviation nerd, I am more familiar with the story of the Wright Brothers than the average person, and I know more of the details of their flying experiments. Popular culture, or at least what I watched and read as kid, often spins the story of the Wright Brothers as a pair of genius inventors who secreted themselves away in their workshop, away from outside influence, applied their brilliance, and emerged with a working flying machine they had invented from scratch. This is patently wrong. I am not disputing that Wilbur and Orville Wright were two of the most influential geniuses of the 20th century, but they were not great inventors, they were brilliant innovators.

The Wright Brothers did not work without external influence and their aeroplane was not composed mostly of their original ideas. Like all great scientists, the Wright Brothers stood on the shoulders of those who came before them, and innovated, adding their own ideas and methods to a science and technology that was already more advanced than the usual stories give credit to.

In the 1890s the goal of powered, heavier-than-air flight was within reach. Sir George Cayley had pinned down the theory of the aeroplane and by 1853 had successfully flown the first manned glider, the cambered aerofoil (aeroplane wing shape) had been developed by both Cayley and Australian engineer Lawrence Hargrave, Samuel Langley had successfully flown some large, steam-powered model aeroplanes, and Octave Chanute had developed an extremely successful biplane hang glider. The Wright Brothers had been keenly following the exploits of the German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal and believed that a successful aeroplane was only a few years away. They had been interested in flying since their father brought home a rubber-power toy helicopter made of paper, bamboo and cork, which the young Wrights played with until it broke, and then built their own.

I can see my house from up here.

The Wrights were fans of German glider pioneer Otto Lilienthal.

In 1896, Lilienthal was killed when he lost control of his glider. The Wright Brothers were inspired to begin their own work in aviation, and drew on the work of all of these pioneers, an influence that the Brothers always acknowledged. The Brothers based the structure of their gliders and eventual aeroplane on the biplane design of Chanute, they understood the work of Cayley and Hargrave and used published aerofoil research to design their glider’s wings, and they decided to adopt the development process employed by Lilienthal, which was to master gliding flight before moving on to powered machines.

Strap canvas and bamboo to your back and jump of a cliff.

Chanute’s Pratt truss structure bi-plane was the basis of the structure of the Wright Flyer.

The Wright Brothers believed that wings, engines, and airframes were sufficiently advanced and that authoritative control was the final remaining hurdle in developing a successful aeroplane. Lilienthal, Chanute, and other glider pioneers controlled their gliders by shifting their weight. The Wright Brothers believed that this did not provide sufficient authority and developed the 3-axis method of control still used on all aeroplanes today. They built kites and gliders with elevator, rudder, and a wing-warping system that controlled lateral roll. Over successive glider flights the Brothers improved and added to their control system. The 3-axis control is often cited as the Brothers’ greatest contribution to aviation.

High as a kite...

The kite the Wrights used to test their wing-warping control system.

The Wrights’ early gliders produced less lift than they had calculated and so they began testing aerofoils to trace the root of the problem. They attached model wings and metal plates to a balance mounted on a bicycle and pedalled hard to create an airflow over the apparatus, allowing them to measure the lift of the model wing. They later, famously, built a small wind tunnel in which they tested a variety of aerofoils. From this they learned that the cause of the smaller than expected lift of their early gliders was inaccuracies in the published lift information they had been using. The Wrights tested around 200 aerofoils, selecting shapes that improved the lift-to-drag ratio of their wings, and produced a better glider.

Easier than the bicycle.

The wind tunnel the Wrights built to test wing sections.

By 1902 the Wrights were satisfied with their glider experiments and believed they were ready to attempt a powered flight. At this point they encountered more hurdles. The Brothers found that there was very little data on either air or marine propellers and they were unable to find enough information to give them a good starting point in designing a suitable propeller. They returned to their wind tunnel experiments and produced a remarkably efficient propeller. Next, they enlisted the help of their bicycle shop mechanic to build an engine, because they were unable to purchase a sufficiently light-weight unit. They combined all of their experience and innovation in the optimistically named Flyer.

Come and get me Orville!

The Wrights’ 1902 glider was an efficient and controllable flying machine.

The rest, as they say, is history. On 17th December 1903, the Wrights made the first successful aeroplane flight, and age of the aeroplane began.

The Wright Brothers’ efforts and methods provide us with an exciting and influential lesson in innovation. They did not create their Flyer in a technological vacuum, and it was by adding their own ideas and developments to those of others that allowed them to succeed. Articles and photographs of dramatic glides by Lilienthal, as well as a much-used toy helicopter from childhood, piqued the Wrights’ curiosity about aviation, and it was this curiosity that provided them with the drive to research, build, and innovate, and create the world’s first aeroplane. Curiosity will always be the greatest driver of innovation and technological progress, and we should be encouraging it wherever we can.

A flight of 37 metres.

December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer makes its first flight.

Bring Back Airships

I have a confession to make: I am one of those nut-job engineers who advocates for the return of airships as a means of travel.

Wait! Before you roll your eyes and commit me to an asylum, hear me out.

Comfort

What prompted me to have a whinge write a post about this is my recent trip to the UK. I have just flown from Australia to the UK for a three day meeting of the Square Kilometre Array Signals and Data Transport consortium. I spent a total of 18 hours in the air, with one stretch of 11 hours cooped up in an aeroplane. I am a very restless person and being confined to a seat for long periods sends me absolutely spare. Comfort is the main factor for me in my support of airships.

The heyday of the airship was the years between world wars one and two. This was the time when the largest aircraft ever built circled the globe, carrying passengers in comfort. The airships of the time had cabins for the passengers, a dining room, a games room, a promenade deck, and even a smoking room. If we were to bring back airships, due to their low speed compared with jet aircraft, passengers would have to be accommodated in similar levels of comfort. You could not ask someone to stay in the same seat for days. There would be room to move around and stretch, and my mental stability would be somewhat preserved.

So, now that my main reason for wanting to ride in an airship is out in the open, let’s consider the other arguments for and against airships.

Giant sky-sausage

A much more comfortable way to fly.

Cost

Dining rooms and promenade decks and multi-day flights sound like a recipe for extremely expensive air travel, and indeed, in the 1920s and 1930s airship flights were pretty much the most expensive way to travel. However, I argue that with modern materials and technology the cost of a ticket on an airship could be comparable to an economy seat on a commercial jet-liner.

Since the airship is held aloft by the buoyancy of its gasbags, its engines do not have to be as powerful as a jet-liners. Also, the large surface area of the airship is a convenient place to mount solar panels. Airships could be solar powered and thus have minimal fuel costs.

Admittedly, I have not actually done any calculations to analyse surface area vs power production vs drag, but oh look a distraction!

Helium is expensive and is a non-renewable resource, so I suggest that modern airships use hydrogen. This would be almost free if the airship company uses solar power to produce the hydrogen from water by electrolysis.

Safety

“Wait! Hydrogen?!?!” I hear you exclaim.

Despite what the most common depiction of airships would have us believe, using hydrogen to lift the ship is not that unsafe. The loss of the Hindenburg was the Zeppelin company’s first civilian accident. The Zeppelin company was the most experienced operator of airships and had flown tens of thousands of passengers millions of miles in the few decades it had been in existence without incident. The only other times Zeppelins caught fire was during WWI when the Allies deliberately pumped them full of ammunition expressly designed to set Zeppelins on fire. While the Hindenburg disaster was a tragedy, accidents such as that have not stopped us using any other form of transport.

Of the 97 people on board the Hindenburg, only 35 were killed in the accident. That’s a nearly 64% survival rate. Some of those deaths were due to passengers jumping out of the burning airship when it was too high off the ground. The Hindenburg took about 30 seconds to burn, and because it was lighter than air, it crashed slowly. Survivors of the accident made their escape when the Hindenburg settled to the ground.

Even by the standards of the time, the Hindenburg was not a particularly large disaster. Contemporary reports pointed out that commercial aeroplane crashes also occurred and killed similar numbers of people in each crash, and wondered why lighter-than-air aviation had slipped so slow in public opinion. Even today we still accept that there is some risk in flying.

It would be wrong to argue that it would be insane to fill a flying machine with something so inflammable, since we do so every day. Fire is one of the most feared situations in aviation because the planes are loaded with tons of highly inflammable jet fuel. Fires on jet-liners do happen, and when they do, they can take hundreds of lives. A hydrogen fire is less disastrous than a liquid-fuel fire since the buoyancy of hydrogen draws it up and away from people and structures. This is one of the reasons the Hindenburg disaster was relatively survivable. The diesel the Hindenburg carried continued to burn for more than half an hour after the crash.

Today, we also have modern technologies, such as flame-retardant materials and fire-fighting systems, that would significantly reduce the risk and consequences of an airship fire. We could even use a double gas cell design developed by the Hindenburg’s engineers, in which a primary hydrogen gas cell was contained inside a protective helium envelope.

Giant sky sausage on fire.

This didn’t happen very often.

Speed

OK, I’ll admit that we have a problem here. But it is not as bad as you think. Airships look slow because they are high up in the sky, but they are actually pretty fast. The Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin both had top speeds of around 135 km/h. To make the 17,740 km trip from Perth to London at this speed would take… 5.5 days… Ah… Oh dear.

Since a trip from Perth to London currently requires you to spend around one day in transit, I think that a three-day Zeppelin ride would not be unacceptable. This would require the airship to cruise at 200 km/h. This is a considerable increase over the Zeppelins of the 1930s, but might be achievable with modern technology.

Improved engines, greater understanding and modelling of aerodynamics, and low-drag materials would allow a modern airship to fly faster. Modern construction methods and materials would create a lighter airship that could fly higher-up where the drag of the atmosphere is reduced and the airship could move at higher speed. A cruising speed of 200 km/h would be a challenging, but not impossible goal.

Weather

Adverse weather would be a significant problem for airships. Because they would fly lower than jet-liners they would not be able to fly above bad weather the way airlines do currently. Modern meteorology, thanks to satellites and radar, would allow airships to navigate around dangerous weather, but this would inevitably cause significant delays.

However, maybe a modern airship would operate at altitudes comparable to a jet-liner and so not suffer from this problem.

Communication

While holiday-makers might not mind a three-day cruise, those, like myself, who are travelling for business would object to wasting so much time in transit. But, as long as the airship had good internet access, the time could be spent working and would not be wasted. I would have spent the trip writing and reading papers, preparing presentations, and relaxing in my bunk watching YouTube videos. Airlines already offer some slow and limited internet access, but airships would have to offer large amounts of high-speed broadband. As projects to deliver high-speed internet world-wide, such as Google’s project Loon, Facebook’s Internet.org, and SpaceX’s internet satellite program, come into operation, convenient internet access on aircraft will become ubiquitous.

Infrastructure

A common argument for the return of airships is that they do not need runways, and so can operate in more remote and diverse regions than jet aircraft.

Giant sky-sausage laying an egg.

Airships can operate where aeroplanes cannot.

They look pretty

Come on. You’ve got to admit that airships drifting serenely overhead would be pretty cool to see.

 

So that’s my argument in favour of airship travel. If you have an idea or information to add for or against this, I would love to hear about it in comments.

Alternatively, we could double the speed of airliners, making the trip much more bearable. But do it quickly. I’ve just checked-in for my flight home.

Space for Innovation

Australia needs a space program.

As 2015 drew to a close, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull unveiled the government’s Innovation Statement with a plan to invest $1.1 billion to drive an Australian “ideas boom”. Before this announcement, the government had already commenced its Review of the Space Activities Act 1998 stating that Australia is in a transition ‘to an advanced economy that cultivates and commercialises innovative technologies’ and that ‘there is significant potential for space technologies to play a role in facilitating this transition…’ It is high time Australia invested in a space program.

Australia is the only OECD country that does not have a space agency or coordinated space program. China and India both established space agencies in the mid-20th century which have contributed immensely to the countries’ technological capabilities and economic growth. Even Ethiopia has recognized the huge advantages afforded by a dedicated space program, establishing a space agency in August 2015.

Why does Australia need a space program?

In the 21st century a space program will be a key instrument for sustainable development. For the average person, the impact that space technologies have on their lives is not immediately obvious, often being hidden away behind some product, service, or app, but all of us benefit immensely every day from what space programs have brought us. We would all notice very quickly if we lost our GPS and satellite communication infrastructure, but space technology goes much further. Satellites are used for environmental monitoring, weather prediction, soil monitoring, water and agricultural management, as well as to search for ore bodies, track bushfires, and in disaster planning. This short list barely makes a dent in the complete list of important space technologies, and doesn’t even touch on the spin-offs, the technologies developed by space agencies that have found other uses and applications.

A space program will cultivate scientific thinking and technological innovation, and provide the training to engineers, scientists and students that Australia needs if we want to maximize the progress from our “ideas boom”.

A national space program will ensure that innovative ideas are exploited to their fullest by stabilizing funding to projects under its aegis. A space agency is also necessary if we are going to cooperate with other countries in the exploration and exploitation of space, since an agency with technical expertise that represents the Australian government will be in a position to negotiate with NASA, the ESA and other countries’ space agencies. An Australian space agency will even reduce the time and cost required to purchase flights on other countries’ launch vehicles.

I liked the picture of a satellite.

Out of sight, out of mind: vital technologies are operating overhead all the time.

They’re expensive. Couldn’t the money be better spent on something other than rockets?

When figures like NASA’s $19.3 billion 2016 budget are bandied around, and even a small space mission costs tens of millions of dollars, it often seems that space programs are too expensive to be worthwhile and that there are other problems we should be using this money to solve. However, put in context with other spending, a space program doesn’t appear to be so expensive.

NASA’s $19.3 billion represents only 0.5% of the US government’s spending, while the US military takes more than 15% of the total. The economic return to the USA gained from NASA’s products, patents, services, and spin-offs means that NASA more than pays its way. Australia is in a not-too-dissimilar position, with around A$30 billion being spent on defence. If we were to copy the US, we would direct around $1 billion to a space program. Australia has the money for a space program, it is only a matter of public choice and political will to divert the necessary funds. And that’s not even taking into account that space programs generate revenue for the government. History has shown that space programs are a very good investment. An Australian space program would begin to pay for itself after only a few years.

NASA’s $19.3 billion sounds like a lot less money when you take into consideration the huge range of projects NASA is responsible for. A reasonable summary of NASA’s active and on-going projects would fill a small book. They include climate and crop monitoring, satellite tracking, observational astrophysics, space-vehicle development, aeronautics, launch contracting, running a space-station and driving a nuclear-powered laser-equipped science-car on Mars. Australia is unlikely to match this commitment (at least in the short-term).

Individual space missions, even pioneering interplanetary missions, can be quite cheap when compared to other things we are willing to spend huge amounts of money on. India became the first country to successfully reach Mars orbit on its first go with the Mangalyaan Mars orbiter, which cost only US$73 million. Major blockbuster movies rarely cost less than $100 million these days. James Bond Spectre cost $245 million, the CGI movie Tangled cost $260 million, while Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides cost an eye-watering $378.5 million.

Also, we do not have to spend big money on huge projects such as shuttles and space stations like Russia, China, and the US. The UK and Canadian space agencies provide a very good model for a similar Australian organization. We don’t need to have a launch vehicle, we just need to start contributing to international space project collaborations.

A space program is not a luxury. It is a key to a sustainable future and developing scientific thinking.

We should totally build one of these any way.

As cool as it would be to have one of these, this is probably not what an Australian space program will look like.

What have we got to offer?

I have come across the belief that Australia has little it can offer the international space science community (and therefore should leave space up to other countries) disturbingly often, and nothing could be further from the truth. Australia has had a small but outstanding role in space since the 1960s, and in a field as diverse as space research, there is always something we can offer both in international collaborations and from Australia-only projects.

Universities and research organizations across the country already have some involvement in space research. We are world leaders in the development of scramjet technology, we are internationally renowned in radio astronomy and computer sciences, we are participating in space missions such as eLISA and the GRACE follow-on, we have important deep-space tracking facilities, and we have the most productive geodetic observatory in the world.

A space program also affords Australia the opportunity to focus efforts on problems that are unique to Australia. This article in The Conversation from 2013 addresses the reasons why Australia urgently needs a space program to solve our own problems and to stop piggybacking on other countries’ space projects.

Western Australian Space Centre

The Western Australian Space Centre: the site of the world’s most productive laser ranging station.

What should we do?

We need to establish a space agency with its own slice of government funding. This is necessary to produce the funding stability I discussed previously and exploit space research to the full.

The Review of the Space Activities Act needs to provide appropriate recommendations so that future legislation minimizes red tape and makes it easy for Australian agencies and research organizations to conduct research within Australia, and to collaborate with other nations.

We need to start training our students for the space sector. A huge number of brilliant STEM students are being attracted to space science at the undergraduate level, but there are too few programs and training opportunities for all but a few of them to continue down this path. Increased support for space research at all levels of education will be needed to develop and exploit Australia’s intellectual resources and drive innovation.

We need to get the public excited about space through science communication, media attention, and school programs.

The public excitement will only grow as Australia’s space program progresses. By collaborating with NASA, the ESA and other space agencies and contributing to international projects, Australia will be eligible to select its own astronauts. While Australian-born Americans have flown in space, no one has gone to space with an Australian flag on their shoulder. The media attention surrounding Canada’s Chris Hadfield and the UK’s Tim Peake show just how much public excitement is generated by space flight, and with proper science communication efforts, this excitement will feed back into greater support for space science and the benefits it has to offer.

Has anyone got a suggestion for a good name for our space agency?

This is here just because I like this picture.

WRESAT: Australia’s first satellite.