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The Royal Society of New South Wales

The Society is the oldest learned society in the Southern Hemisphere, tracing its origin to the Philosophical Society of Australasia, founded in Sydney in 1821.

Our purpose is to advance knowledge through "... the encouragement of studies and investigations in Science Art Literature and Philosophy".

Membership of the Royal Society of New South Wales is open to anyone interested in Science, Art, Literature or Philosophy and their relationships. For more information, go to About us, visit our Membership Page or download our Brochure.


Forthcoming events

Royal Society of NSW and Four Academies Forum

"The future of work"

in conjunction with the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Humanities Academy, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

The Royal Society of NSW and Four Academies Forum, "The future of work” will take a futuristic look at the work environment over the next 20-30 years and identify challenges and opportunities that might present themselves as this unprecedented wave of technological, social and economic change approaches. The themes to be explored (but not limited to) are:

  • The digital divide
  • Emerging information technology and white-collar job replacement
  • The stratification of society and the emergence of new social classes
  • The rate of social and cultural change
  • The implications of big data
  • Teaching for the future
  • The impact of technology on human creativity

There will then be morning and afternoon sessions, each session being followed by a discussion panel. There will be four speakers in each session. Each will be a Fellow of at least one of the Academies or the Society, including the President's or President-elect of the four national Academies.

The Forum will be opened formally by the Governor, followed by a brief framing of the issue by the Chief Scientist and Engineer of NSW, Professor Mary O'Kane.

Date and time:
Reception: Monday, 14 September 2015 - 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm
Forum: Tuesday, 15 September 2015 - 8:30 am to 5:30 pm

Venue: Government House, Sydney

Admission by invitation only. For further details, click RSNSW and Four Academies Forum programme.

Recent events

2015 Dirac Lecture

Professor Subir Sachdev, Professor of Physics, Harvard University

"Quantum entanglement and superconductivity"

Einstein called it "spooky action at a distance”. Entanglement is a counter-intuitive feature of quantum theory by which two particles are deeply correlated even when separated by vast distances, such that a measurement of one particle instantaneously determines the state of the other. Remarkably, quantum entanglement can also happen en masse, determining the macroscopic properties of many electrons in certain crystals. Such states of matter can exhibit superconductivity, the ability to conduct electricity without measurable resistance, at much higher temperatures than was previously possible.Professor Sachdev will also describe newly emerging connections between the theory of macroscopic quantum entanglement and Hawking's theory of black holes.

Subir Sachdev is a condensed matter physicist well known for his research on quantum phase transitions and its application to a variety of quantum materials, such as the high temperature superconductors. His research seeks to illuminate the boundary between the everyday world we live in - in which many but not all phenomena can be explained through classical physics - and the subatomic world of quantum physics. These two worlds come together at a "quantum phase transition”, where there is a change in the macroscopic character of the quantum state describing a many-particle system, and manifestations of quantum entanglement appear naturally at long distances. His book Quantum Phase Transitions (Cambridge University Press, 1999 and 2011) has formed the basis of much subsequent research. More recently he has pioneered application of the remarkable connection between the nature of quantum entanglement near the horizons of black holes, and the entanglement in quantum materials. This has led to new insights on experiments on quantum phase transitions, and on the "strange metal” state found in many modern materials, including the single layer of carbon atoms known as graphene.

Date and time: Tuesday, 1 September 2015 - 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm

Venue: John B Reid Theatre, AGSM, University of NSW

PUBLIC LECTURE – Wednesday, 2 September 2015
1234th Ordinary General Meeting

"Trait-Based Ecology”
Distinguished Professor Mark Westoby
Macquarie University

Professor Mark Westoby is one of the world's most influential ecologists. He came to Australia in 1975 with his late wife collaborator, Barbara Rice in 1975. He is now an ARC Laureate Fellow, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and the recipient of the Society's 2005 Clarke Medal. He has been the leader of "Genes to Geoscience" which is a federation of research labs aimed at incubating future leaders in research that fuses genomics, functional ecology, earth system science, and paleontology. Prof. Westoby is a pioneer of 'trait-based ecology'. This approach arranges the world's 300,000 plant species into functional types on the basis of their traits. Traits can summarize major trade-offs faced by plants. What emerges is a picture of the variety of different ways plant species make a living, sometimes adapting to different habitats, but also via different approaches to shared habitat.

Venue: Union, Universities, & Schools Club, 25 Bent St, Sydney
Time: 6:00 for 6:30 pm, Welcome drink at 6:00 pm
Cost: Fellows & Members $5; Guests, $20
Please note dress code: jacket and tie

1234th Ordinary General Meeting - Open Lecture Series - all welcome

"Complexity and cultural transitions 100,000 BP to the present"

Speaker: ProfessorRoland Fletcher

Professor of Theoretical and World Archaeology, University of Sydney

Over the past hundred thousand years four major cultural transitions have occurred in human settlement patterns of which the first is only partially known and the other three are very familiar. The three familiar ones are the development of sedentary communities, some time after about 10,000 years ago; the second is the formation agrarian-based urbanism after about 5,000 years ago; and the most recent, the formation of industrial-based urbanism in the past two hundred years. The pattern of these great transitions has been logically organised by a progressivist Stage Theory model since the 19th century in which each stage is characterised by cultural type fossils eg writing and initial urbanism. Though this model is now understood to be problematic, it has not been replaced and in actuality still dominates the large-scale, long-term perspective which we use to comprehend cultural behaviour. Conventional definitions of sedentism and urbanism have become increasingly vague and inclusive. The cultural type fossils are known from context other than the ones for which they are supposed to be stage diagnostic. What is required is to replace the progressive model in which change is indicative of and due to a trend to advancement by a model of transitions for which the "type Fossils" are actually antecent prerequisites ie are operational requirements which must come together as sets of material characteristics to enable major transitions in settlement size to occur. Critically, economic transformations are also required but do not seem to occur just because cultural, material prerequisites come together. The "Industrial Revolution" is a singular case. Crucially, changes in the material assemblage are essential; the characteristic social organisation of each "stage" derives from the material changes and social and material conditions can be at odds with each other. The path to these large, long-term emerging patterns is not deterministic.

Venue:Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney

Time and date:6:00 for 6:30 pm Wednesday 5 August 2015

Enjoy a welcome drink from 6:00 pm. All welcome.

Please visit theEvents 2015page (or clickDinner booking) to book for the dinner following the talk ($75 per head for 2 courses including wine).

Thursday 6 August

The 2015 Clarke Lecture

"From the Solar Nebula to the Deep Earth – a Geological Journey"

Speaker: ProfessorBill Griffin

Distinguished Professor of Geology, Macquarie University

Geology is a wonderful research field; it can take you on strange journeys. In the mountains of southern Tibet, large massifs (≥1000 k3) of ultramafic rocks, fragments of Earth’s mantle, contain mineral assemblages that require both exhumation from very great depths (>500 km down) and extremely low oxygen fugacity (reducing conditions) not ordinarily expected within the mantle. To learn the story of these remarkable rocks, we have had to investigate both the mechanisms that have brought them up to the surface, and the origins of super-reducing conditions in the mantle. This has involved field studies, geodynamic modeling, a range of techniques for micron-scale chemical, microstructural and isotopic analysis, and a bit of good luck. One of the keys to the Tibetan riddles lies near the Sea of Galilee in Israel, and involves a remarkable, still poorly-understood type of volcanic activity. The colloquium will try to lead you through this story, which is still evolving by the day; it illustrates the diversity of approaches required in modern geological research, and some of the excitement of that research work.

Bill Griffin was born and educated in the USA, and took his PhD from the University of Minnesota for studies of the Precambrian rocks of the Superior Craton. He then emigrated to Norway, and spent the next twenty years at the University of Oslo, mainly in the Geological Museum, the center of geochemical research in Scandinavia. He moved to Australia in 1985, to be with his new Aussie wife and to help develop geological applications for the CSIRO’s new proton microprobe. When the GEMOC Key Centre was established in 1985, he moved to Macquarie, seconded from CSIRO. After leaving the CSIRO in 2006, he accepted a contract from Macquarie University, and has been here since, currently as Distinguished Professor of Geochemistry.

When: Thursday 6 August
Where: Building Y3A, Theatre 1
Time: 5:45pm for registration and refreshments, 6:15pm start time.
Cost: Free
Registration essential: Email the Events Team atevents@mq.edu.au
Parking: Y1 and Y2 car-parks are available for this event. Parking permits will be issued upon registration.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

"Science in literature"

Dr James Ley

Editor, Sydney Review of Books

The Sydney Review of Books is an online journal devoted to long-form literary criticism. It is motivated by the belief that in-depth analysis and robust critical discussion are crucial to the development of Australia’s literary culture. It is edited by Dr James Ley. Dr Ley has been a professional literary critic for fifteen years andhis work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Age, The Australian, The Times Literary Supplement, Australian Book Review and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

The Science of Spontaneity: Fred Astaire as Consummate Craftsman

Dr Kathleen Riley

This talk will focus in detail on the science behind Fred Astaire's apparent effortlessness, his ability to make something that was technically complex and endlessly rehearsed look easy and spontaneous. The lighter-than-air grace, the pluperfect precision and the sheer joyfulness of his dancing were the products of a dogged perfectionism, an astonishing musicianship and an imagination at once whimsical and methodical. It will be seen how, in the more technical aspects of his artistry, Astaire was part of an ancient tradition (that of Roman pantomime) and, at the same time, revolutionary. The first half of the talk will concentrate on Astaire the eloquent dance stylist and specifically his symmetria, the perfect ‘commensurability' of all parts of his body to one another and to the whole, and his eurythmia, his interpretive games with the shape and logic of music, his inventive use of the off-beat and experiments with broken rhythm, and his syncopated language which impressed Bertolt Brecht as the sound of the modern environment. The second half will consider Astaire the cinematic craftsman, his instinctive understanding of how best to present dance on film, his pioneering use of special effects (e.g. slow motion and split screens), and his role in improving sound synchronization. (Film clips will be shown.)

Dr Kathleen Rileyis a former British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford and now a freelance writer, theatre historian and critic. She is the author of Nigel Hawthorne on Stage(University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004); The Reception and Performance of Euripides' Herakles:Reasoning Madness(Oxford University Press, 2008); and The Astaires: Fred and Adele (Oxford University Press, US, 2012). The last was included in theWall Street Journal's Best Non-Fiction 2012 and described by legendary singer Tony Bennett as ‘a magnificent book about the trials and tribulations of show business'. In 2008, she convened at Oriel College, Oxford the first international conference on the art and legacy of Fred Astaire. She was Script Consultant on the critically acclaimed stage production My Perfect Mind which had its London premiere at the Young Vic in 2013. Her current projects include a monograph exploring the ancient Greek concept of Nostos(homecoming) and an edited volume of essays on Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity. She continues to have an association with the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD) in Oxford.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Annual Black-Tie Dinner of the Society

Distinguished Fellows Lecture by past Patron The Hon Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO Dist FRSN

The Society's major event of the year was held at the Union University and Schools Club. The Society was delighted that our former Patron, The Hon Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO Dist FRSN was able to be present as the guest of honour at the dinner. Dame Marie delivered the 2015 Distinguished Fellows Lecture and was presented with the 2014 Royal Society of NSW Medal. The Society's other awards for 2014 were also presented at this occasion by Dame Marie. The other awards presented at the dinner were:

Clarke Medal (Botany) Professor Robert F. Park
James Cook Medal Scientia Professor Martin Green AM
The inaugural Royal Society of NSW History and Philosophy of Science Medal Dr Ann Moyal AM
Edgeworth David Medal Ass. Professor Richard Payne
Clarke Medal (Geology) (2013) Distinguished Professor Bill Griffin

Wednesday 1 April 2015

1231st Ordinary General Meeting

"Is the Brain the Right Size?"Speaker: Scientia Professor George Paxinos AO DSc FASSA FAA FRSNNHMRC Senior Principal Research Fellow, Neuroscience Research Australia and University of New South Wales

George Paxinos with friendProfessor Paxinos studied at Berkeley, McGill and Yale universities. He is the author offorty-six books on the brain. His first book, The Rat Brain in Stereotaxic Coordinates, is the third most cited book in science following Molecular Cloning and The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

He produced two paradigm shifts in the field of neuroscience.The first, during a sabbatical at Cambridge in 1977, he learned immunohistochemistry and applied it for the first time in brain atlases. That is, he used the chemical phenotype of neurons as a criterion for identifying brain regions and for establishing brain homologies across experimental animals and humans. The second, in his avian brain atlas, he used neuromeric criteria to delineate the entire brain for the first time.

Most scientists working on the relation between the human brain and neurologic or psychiatric diseases, or animal models of these diseases, use his maps and concepts of brain organization. His human brain atlases are the most accurate ones for the identification of deep structures and are used in surgical theatres.


Pre-Socratic philosophers rejected supernatural explanations for the existence of the physical world and the nature of the soul. These philosophers rejected gods and magic. Later Hippocrates said that men aught to know that from the brain, and only from it, derive our pleasures, happiness, laughter as well as pain and sorrow.

After the long battle to find the seat of the soul, psychology lost its soul in the 1930s. According to Hebb (1958), the mind is the integration of the activity of the neurons of the brain. That is, there is no ghost in the machine. If the relation between brain and behaviour is 1 to 1, then there is no need to hypothesize the presence of the soul to understand behaviour and modify it.

Professor Paxinos's laboratory has constructed brain atlases using identical nomenclature to enable scientists to navigate seamlessly between the brain of humans and experimental animals to test hypotheses inspired by human considerations and relate data from experimental animals to humans.

The human brain features many more homologies with the brain of monkey (e.g. virtually all areas of the cortex are homologous), of the rat and of the bird than previously thought. Using MR images in mice and non-human primates he is attempting to provide 3D volumes of canonical brains against which transgenic varieties with clinical significance can be compared.

Finally, on the issue of evolution and survival, the brain is wonderful, but it is not omniscient. Both the dazzling technological success of our species and the worrisome environmental degradation it has produced are reflections of the function of our brains. Professor Paxinos concludes: If the brain were smaller than what it is, it would not have been able to support language and the development of science and technology which today threatens existence; if the brain were larger than what it is, it might have been able to understand the problem and possibly even solve it. The brain is just not the right size.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Joint Meeting with the Australian Institute of Physics

"Quantum emitters in wide band gap semiconductors"

Speaker: Associate Professor Igor Aharonovich School of Physics and Advanced Materials, University of Technology, Sydney

Igor Aharonovich

Associate Professor Aharonovich received his BSc (2005) and MSc (2007) in Materials Engineering from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. He then moved to Australia and pursued his PhD studies at the University of Melbourne on the topic of single emitters in diamond. In 2011, he took a postdoctoral position at Harvard University with the group of Prof Evelyn Hu. His research was focused on nanofabrication of optical cavities out of diamond, silicon carbide and gallium nitride. In 2013 Professor Aharonovich joined the School of Physics and Advanced Materials at UTS as a Senior Lecturer and an ARC DECRA fellow and was promoted to Associated Professor in 2015.


Wednesday 4 March 2015

1230th Ordinary General Meeting

"Super-resolution microscopy: Understanding how T cells make decisions"

Speaker: Scientia Professor Katharina Gaus, ARC Centre of Excellence in Advanced Molecular Imaging
NHMRC Program in Membrane Interface Biology, University of NSW


At the 1230th OGM Scientia Professor Katharina Gaus case of insight into her ground-breaking work on understanding the structure of T-cells, one of the major components of the immune system. Professor Gaus is a cell biologist who uses super-resolution microscopy to explore the structure of cell membranes. Hopefully, this will lead to improved treatments for infectious, cancer and autoimmune diseases.


The adaptive immune system is the body’s first line of defence against infection. It is acquired over the life of the organism, developing a "memory” for antigens (antigens are the invading agent). This highly sophisticated system is antigen-specific and must be able to distinguish between foreign antigens and substances made by the host. It is mediated by T-lymphocytes – a type of white blood cell that plays a central role in cell-mediated immunity. T-lymphocytes are characterised by the presence of a T-cell receptor (TCR) on the cell-surface. (Read more...) 

Monday 16 February 2015

The Four Societies Lecture

"Latest developments in Small Modular Reactors"

Held in conjunction with the Nuclear Engineering Panel of the Sydney Branch of Engineers Australia, the Australian Nuclear Association and the Australian Institute of Energy

Dr Adi Paterson - Chief Executive Officer, ANSTO

The largest source of energy today is fossil fuel which we know has significant CO2 issues. The second largest source is nuclear, using uranium. Dr Paterson began his talk by showing that the country generating the most energy per capita is France with its successful harnessing of nuclear technology, but interestingly Brazil is also successful with its use of ethanol from sugar cane. Australia was shown to be in the worst sector with almost the highest cost per capita of electric power generation, more than twice as expensive as France and similar to the high cost in Denmark which relies heavily on wind energy. (Read more...)

Seal of the RSNSW


Awards for 2014

The winners of the Society's 2014 awards were presented with their awards at the Society's annual dinner held on Tuesday 5 May. They are:

(read more...)

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