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Our Land Abounds In Far More Than Just Nature's Gifts

To concentrate solely on Australia's natural beauty is to do ourselves an injustice.

24/01/2017 6:25 AM AEDT | Updated 24/01/2017 11:09 AM AEDT
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Professor Michelle Simmons, Director of the Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at UNSW.

In Australia, when praising ourselves, we tend to emphasise the beauty of our natural environment, our great lifestyle, and the easygoing character of our people. To concentrate solely on these attributes is to do ourselves an injustice -- this is not even half of what we can offer. We should also be proud of our openness, our irreverence and creativity, our willingness to give things a go, and our enduring sense of possibility. This is why I came here, and why I choose to stay.

As a child growing up in southeast London, I liked doing difficult things -- pursuits that took time to understand, such as chess, but gave great intellectual satisfaction when you succeeded. From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I had an excellent high school physics teacher, Jim Clarke, who would single me out -- the only girl -- to help demonstrate some of the phenomena he was teaching. He found out I wanted to be an astronaut and called me to the headmaster's office where he had arranged for an astronaut from the US to talk to me on the phone. Because of him, I started to believe I could do anything. I went on to university, where I obtained a double degree in physics and chemistry, and a PhD in physics.

This was, in a sense, a passport to the world. At Durham University in England, I learnt to design and build electronic devices -- solar cells for capturing the sun's energy. At Cambridge, I learnt the complexity and fragility of quantum mechanics, the weird physics that emerges when dealing with the world as it gets very small, such as atoms, the building blocks of nature approximately a million times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.

There came a point when I wanted to find a more ambitious project; to create new devices that had never been made before. It was in the hope of realising this dream that, in 1998, I applied for fellowships in Australia and in Cambridge, as well as for a faculty position at Stanford in the US. I was offered the Australian Fellowship, and immediately accepted and pulled out of the other two -- a decision that perplexed not only my colleagues in England, but many Australians.

Ours is a country of great spirit and enormous promise -- something that outsiders don't always appreciate.

In Britain, the first reaction people have to any new idea is to tell you a thousand reasons why it will not work. The US offers a highly competitive environment where you fight both externally and internally for funds and are beholden to a senior mentor. Australia offers academic freedom, openness to ideas, and an amazing willingness to pursue goals that are ambitious and high risk. I genuinely believe it is better here than over there.

When I arrived in Australia in 1999 (I became a citizen in 2007), I hatched a plan to adapt existing technology to make an electronic device where the active component was a single atom. The industrial world was focused on making devices smaller and smaller, and I wanted to build something that hadn't been built before, something that could prove useful. I wanted to create electronic devices at the atomic scale.

When we proposed our concept, the consensus within the global scientific community was that the chances of success were near impossible. From senior scientists at IBM, we had critics all over the world.

Our manufacturers in Germany agreed they would make a system to my design, but with no guarantee that it would work. It was a $3.5 million risk.

Did it work? Better than I could ever have hoped. In recent years, we have used this unique technology in Sydney to create a stack of world-first atomic-scale devices. We've built the world's smallest transistor and the world's narrowest conducting wires in silicon. These achievements have been published in the usual scientific places but also in The Guinness Book of World Records, as my son discovered, sitting in his school library.

Australians are natural discoverers. We are problem-solvers who like to get things done. In this, we have so much to be thankful for -- and, more importantly, so much to look forward to.

We remain the only group in the world that can make precision electronic devices in silicon at the level of single atoms. And now we are on a mission to build a complete prototype quantum computer. The significance of this for Australia cannot be underestimated. The international race is on -- it's been nicknamed the "space race of our era". Australia has established a globally competitive edge, a two- to three-year lead over the rest of the world. It's nail biting, it's exciting, but above all, it's happening here.

Moreover, it is not the only initiative of its kind. Our country has established centres of excellence that are the envy of scientists across the globe, in areas such as robotic vision, astronomy, big data, gravitational wave discovery, brain function, ageing and ecology. Collectively, these initiatives attract brilliant young people from all over the world -- most of whom come, no doubt, with a shared sense of hope and excitement, just like the one I held, and still hold, about this place.

Remarkably, three of these centres of excellence are focused on quantum physics and related technologies -- each with a particularly strong presence here in NSW. Australia, for some reason, is disproportionately strong in quantum science. And, with billions of dollars of investment coming into this field across the world, our next challenge is to see whether we can benefit from our international lead by translating our transformational research into high technology industries here in Australia.

Ours is a country of great spirit and enormous promise -- something that outsiders don't always appreciate. With our inherent scepticism towards dogma and our collaborative spirit, Australians are natural discoverers. We are problem-solvers who like to get things done. In this, we have so much to be thankful for -- and, more importantly, so much to look forward to.

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This is an edited excerpt of the 2017 Australia Day Address, to be delivered by Michelle at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at 12.30 pm today. Visit www.australiaday.com.au/events/australia-day-address to find out more.

Professor Michelle Simmons is the director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology at the University of NSW and an esteemed physicist specialising in quantum physics. She was recently named the 2017 L'ORÉAL-UNESCO Asia-Pacific Woman in Science.


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