Physicists awarded top Aussie science gong

Michael Ramsey
·3-min read

When a young David Blair arrived in the United States in the 1970s to help build a gravitational wave detector, he figured it would be a short-term project.

"I thought I'd go there, spend a year or two, detect these waves then go on and do something else," the University of Western Australia physicist says wryly.

"Never did I guess that I'd be hooked into this for the next four decades and we'd go struggling and struggling and struggling until finally we managed to detect these waves."

That breakthrough finally came on September 14, 2015 - a date seared into Prof Blair's memory and one that came almost 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in his general theory of relativity.

Emeritus Professor Blair and his colleagues, Adelaide University's Peter Veitch and Australian National University's David McClelland and Susan Scott, all made critical contributions towards the groundbreaking global discovery.

The quartet has been jointly awarded the nation's top science gong, the 2020 Prime Minister's Prize for Science.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of time and space produced by merging black holes and exploding stars.

They wash over the earth all the time, but our instruments have not been sensitive enough to detect them until recent years.

Building equipment capable of honing in on the waves and blocking out everything else meant developing what Prof Blair describes as the quietest place in the universe.

The process included hanging mirrors with devices called vibration isolators - "a bit like a car suspension but billions of times better".

"People used to think that space was just empty and silent and that space was also something that was sort of rigid - matter didn't affect space and when you walk around the room, you're not changing the room," Prof Blair says.

"But the reality is that you are ... all matter is intertwined with space and time.

"It's completely different from all the stuff we learn in schools."

It's for that reason Prof Blair is running an international program to change the way physics is taught.

And it's not just about proving a theory.

Prof Blair's invention of the first ultra-precise sapphire clock has been used to advance GPS navigation and radars, and vibration-suppressing technology has been used to help aircraft searching for minerals under the ground.

Meanwhile, work on two key environmental issues, recycling processes for mixed plastics and low-cost battery technology for storing renewable energy saw Professor Thomas Maschmeyer from the University of Sydney awarded the $250,000 Prime Minister's Prize for Innovation.

The awards come during a tough year for universities.

A plunge in revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in massive job cuts and prompted calls for greater federal government support.

"The fact that they're giving a prize for something which might seem a little bit esoteric shows that at some level, the government really recognises the importance of science," Prof Blair says.

"But that recognition ... needs to go an awful lot further. And if the government doesn't increase its investment in universities, I think we're just cutting our own throats."