Our energy system is based on a rickety 19th century concept, but a revolution in energy storage is changing that.

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The Tesla energy storage facility at the Hornsdale wind farm, 220 km north of Adelaide, South Australia (Neoen)

IT WAS THE YEAR the Soviet Union collapsed, Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaeda, and the lauded American physicist Richard Feynman died. Murphy Brown debuted on U.S. television, while at the cinema, Rain Man battled it out with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Crocodile Dundee II.

And while it doesn’t have quite such a recognition factor, 1988 was also the year Maria Skyllas-Kazacos, an Australian professor of chemical engineering, obtained a U.S. patent for inventing the vanadium redox battery, or VRB.

VRBs are quite something. Unlike traditional lead-acid batteries of the time, or the lithium-ion wonders of today, they store and convert energy separately. They stockpile electricity as chemical energy in two large tanks filled with electrolytic fluids, which are connected to electrochemical cells. …

New research shows that the rich microbial diversity of wilderness settings are key to making us healthier.

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Wilderness soils are replete with biodiversity that can boost your microbiome (Randy Larcombe)

EVEN ON A BLUSTERY winter’s afternoon, Mount Lofty flaunts its splendour as a bushland oasis, one of the last vestiges of the original forests and woodlands that once dotted the Adelaide Plains of South Australia. Walking its winding nature trails, you encounter a multitude of native trees, shrubs, climbing plants, reeds and grasses: two-thirds of them harbour the fruit, seeds or insects that attract birds, or the nectar that bring butterflies.

As you meander down the narrow tracks from the summit, you feel invigorated by the scenery, the silence, and the smell of wet earth after a light shower. To a city dweller like me, the air itself seems therapeutic. …

Working late one night, Alan Guth struck upon a solution to the birth of the cosmos. Until then, he’d had trouble holding down a job.

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ALAN GUTH still finds it amazing that he can understand anything about the first few moments of the Big Bang. But he shouldn’t — he was there.

About 13.8 billion years ago, when the universe was a hundredth of a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old, it underwent an incredible growth spurt, doubling in size more than 60 times in a split second. This cosmic fireball quickly slowed, then — after about 380,000 years — cooled enough for electrons to combine with nuclei and form atoms. …

A lack of diversity in Australian newsrooms remains a stubborn feature of modern life. For me, this not academic: it is lived experience.

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Montage art by Wilson da Silva

HOW’S DIVERSITY coming along in the Australian news media? Not so much.

A study by the non-profit Media Diversity Australia, entitled Who Gets to Tell Australian Stories? and released August 2020, details just how white Anglo-Celtic the Australian news media is. But it was not surprising — not for someone from a non-English speaking background who’s been a journalist in Australia for 34 years: everywhere I’ve worked in the country, it’s been a wall of white Anglos as far as the eye could see.

The key metric in the study was a person’s ethnicity and ancestral background, relying on methodology used by the Australian Human Rights Commission, such as an individual’s name and its origins, their place of birth and a visual observation of their ethnicity, as well as publicly available biographical information. Presenters, commentators and reporters presenting news were placed into one of four categories: Anglo-Celtic, European, non-European or Indigenous (in Australia, that’s either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander). …

In the milieu of the Cold War, a roadside accident three generations ago led to Sputnik 1, and the beginning of a new era: the Space Age.

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HAD IT NOT BEEN for a collision with a tree by a vodka-sodden driver on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia would not have put Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, into orbit around the Earth when it did. Sadly, history does not record the driver’s name.

It was 1957, and the Soviet Union’s brilliant but secretive rocket genius, Sergei Korolev — known to the West for decades only as ‘the Chief Designer’ — had been struggling against a lack of interest from the military and the Politburo in making the Soviet Union the first to launch ‘a little Moon’, as he dubbed it. …

For decades forgotten in a warehouse, one of the grandfathers of modern computers — and only the fifth to go live — has been restored.

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CSIRAC reassembled just before its move into permanent display (Paul Doornbusch)

THE WORLD WAS a different place in 1949: vinyl LP records had just been invented, the now-iconic Volkswagen Kombi van debuted on the market, the world’s first jet-powered airliner took its maiden flight, and the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed by Mao Zedong.

But behind the scenes, it was also the beginning of a powerful technological revolution: the dawn of the computer age. Within months of each other, scientists and engineers had created the first stored-memory electronic computers: large, lumbering machines weighing several tonnes and packed with vacuum tubes and miles of copper wiring. …

It turns out silk, an ancient natural fibre, has versatile uses in medicine — especially when combined with diamonds.

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Silk protein in a vial; it is a natural protein-based biopolymer long been recognised for its superior properties (Tufts University)

ASMA KHALID enjoys wearing a silk dress, and appreciates diamonds for their beauty. But she never expected both would end up being the cornerstone of her work as a physicist. Yet they have, and opened up a whole new way to see deep in the body and even deliver drugs.

As a PhD student at the University of Melbourne in Australia, she had been working with nano-diamonds, particles of solid carbon arranged in a crystal structure that are less than one thousandth of a millimetre in size. …

Future, Opinion, Technology

Westerners can find robots creepy, but the Japanese see them as endearing — thanks to a 600-year-old tradition.

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Honda’s ASIMO conducting an orchestra (Vanillase/Wikimedia Commons)

WHY ARE WE so afraid of robots? It’s not just anxiety about the job-killing potential of creeping automation and the rise of artificial intelligence that makes people fear robots: it’s deeply embedded in Western culture. Yet in Japan, they are adored.

“It’s so much part of their history that they’ve never seen it in the negative light that Westerners see it in,” said Professor Angela Ndalianis, Director of the Centre for Transformative Media Technologies at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. “It’s a part of their theatre tradition, their art tradition, and very embedded in the community.”

She credits Japan’s long tradition of karakuri, mechanized puppets, and clockwork automatons that became popular in the 17th century — although antecedents date back to the 1420s, when karakuri (meaning ‘mechanism’ or ‘trick’) were used in festival floats where they danced and rang bells. By the 1820s, they were widely used in religious festivals, where they performed re-enactments of traditional myths and legends, and heavily influenced Japanese theatre. …

On a clear day 66 million years ago, the sky abruptly caved in and 75% of all life became extinct.

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The Earth changed forever 66 million years ago (IgorZh/Shutterstock)

SIXTY-SIX MILLION years ago, in one cataclysmic flash, the Earth changed forever. Without warning, a mountain-sized rock pierced through the 480 km of the atmosphere in an instant, and slammed into the deep bedrock of a shallow sea.

When it struck the ground, the energy released was unimaginable — more than 10,000 times the explosive power of all the world’s nuclear weapons igniting in one place, and at one time. A blistering blastwave of all-consuming fire raced through the air for thousands of kilometres, roasting any living thing in its path.

The shockwave shook the planet like a bell, triggering tsunamis, landslides and volcanic eruptions the world over. The sky fell dark and temperatures dropped. In the dark and desperate years that followed, three-quarters of all the species on Earth became extinct. Among them, the dinosaurs, magnificent creatures that had ruled the planet for 160 million years. …

Rather than fear robots will take our jobs, we should be more worried there won’t be enough of them as the workforce ages.

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Geminoid F, left, with Prof Mari Velonaki, who is researching human interaction with lifelike robots (UNSW)

THERE IS SOMETHING unnerving about Geminoid F. She breathes, blinks, smiles, sighs, frowns, and speaks in a soft, considered tone. On the surface, she appears to be a Japanese woman in her 20s, about 165 cm tall with long dark hair, brown eyes and soft pearly skin. She breathes, blinks, smiles, sighs, frowns, and her lips move when she speaks in a soft, considered tone.

But the soft skin is made of silicon, and underneath that is urethane foam flesh, with a plastic head atop a metal skeleton. Her movements are powered by pressurised gas and an air compressor hidden behind her chair. She sits with her lifelike hands folded casually on her lap. She — one finds it hard to say “it” — had been on loan to the Creative Robotics Lab at the University of New South Wales in Sydney when I visited, and where mechatronics researcher David Silvera-Tawil had set her up for a series of experiments. …


Wilson da Silva

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