Inspiration From Nature

Friday, October 30, 2015

Queenstown architect Fred Van Brandenburg recounted his journey from “stage set architecture” to architecture inspired by nature, triggered by a “cathartic moment” in 2004 while looking around Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona.

“No other space or man-made objects have inspired me so.  I saw structural solutions created by intersecting forms that seemed spontaneous; so natural – yet controlled by specific geometry.  What I saw on that day in 2004 was the source of a change within me, like an unfurling fern synonymous with the New Zealand emblem.”

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Genes ‘n Roses

October 14, 2015

Richard Newcomb, Principal Investigator of the Allan Wilson Centre,
Chief Scientist at Plant and Food Research, and Professor of Evolutionary Genetics, University of Auckland.

We can theoretically detect and differentiate a trillion smells. When the human genome was decoded, there were more genes for smell than anything else.

We only have 480 active odorant receptors out of 1000 available receptors present in our genome. These provide us each with our own unique smell perception of the world around us. So when someone says that wine smells like apricots to them, it may well be because of the differences in our genes.

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Science Diplomacy – a Shift in Paradigm?

October 11, 2015

The Royal Society appointed a foreign secretary way back in 1723, but not until the 1980s did globalisation propel science diplomacy to the forefront of issues from food insecurity and collapsing ecosystems to the International Space Station and Square Kilometre Array, University of Otago Political Studies Department Prof Robert Patman told over 30 at Sunday’s Catalyst gathering.

Climate change is “the poster child” for issues that transcend states and require global scientific cooperation. The International Panel on Climate Change’s 2400 scientists have produced five major impact reports since 1998 and substantial agreement on both the causes and effects. By 2006, even George Bush had to acknowledge that the scientific proof was there and the US military now sees climate change as a strategic threat. But politicians tend to conceptualise graduated timelines, so do not see action as vital despite the critical nature of the impending tipping point.

Is there hope on this front? Yes, Prof Patman says. Governments are beginning to understand that we can’t afford not to act. The problem is, a mismatch between the dire need of the problem and the speed of political response.

How could we better harness the promise of scientific diplomacy? First, scientists should insert themselves more frequently into the diplomatic process and national debate that influences government. “It is incumbent on those who have the knowledge to share it and use it.” And politicians tend to act in response to public calls for action – which requires the public to understand the problems and demand solutions.

And secondly, sovereign states must come to terms with a fundamentally new environment where both problems and solutions transcend their sovereign boundaries and require global responses.

Towards this, the UN needs reform – to ensure it can be a forum for bringing together diplomacy and science on issues that can only be resolved on an international basis. Central to this reform is the need to get rid of the permanent members’ right of veto, Prof Patman said.

Prof Robert Patman

Quantum Mechanics to Quantum Engineer

October 1, 2015

Isaac Newton ruled supreme in physics for 200 years, until trouble with the details (like the “ultraviolet catastrophe”) came to the fore by the end of the 19th century.

Then in 1900, Max Planck introduced the concept of a quantum of energy that explained why the proverbial poker in the fire went from red, to white, to the blue end of the spectrum… All to do with the frequency of different sized packets of energy.

University of Otago Prof David Hutchinson, director of the Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonic and Quantum Technologies, used analogies from children on swings to fast running rugby props to carry the crowd of around 60 through his “back of the envelope” equations linking Planck to Einstein, energy to frequency, double-slit wave diffraction to the coast in England… and beyond.

I guess you had to be there…

Because otherwise, as Einstein said of the birth of quantum mechanics; “marvellous, what ideas young people have these days, but I don’t believe a word of it.”

Quantum mechanics is neither magical nor mystical, Prof Hutchinson said, but it is “the most successful physics theory ever”.

Potential economic uses vary from tiny gyroscopes and aeroplane technology to medical imaging to allow us to see inside objects. Added Prof Hutchinson, none of this presented a problem with respect to the “tyranny of distance” that otherwise faced many New Zealand exports.

His final message? Go forth and study physics…

With thanks to the University of Otago for stretching their Winter Lecture Series both into spring and into Queenstown, especially for Catalyst.

Prof David Hutchinson