A professor at the Australian National University has won the country's most prestigious science prize for his work on the way the earth changes shape in subtle but highly important ways.
Emeritus Professor Kurt Lambeck, who has been at the ANU since 1977, is globally recognised for his work to reveal how the earth changes shape every second and has done so since the dawn of time.
He's now studying how the sea level has changed over centuries - important work that informs the debate on global warming.
He told Fairfax Media he was pleased to be given the prize.
"Sometimes you feel like you're working in space and nobody cares."
He said he felt it was a recognition of the work he and his colleagues had done and also a recognition of the importance of science.
"Science in this country is of the highest quality," he said.
The changes in the shape of the earth that Professor Lambeck studied affect sea levels, the orbits of satellites and even how the continents move. Professor Lambeck's early work in the 1960s enabled the first, pioneering space missions.
It also helps the GPS system on phones function so navigation, even down to our street levels, has been transformed. His work is important for exploration beyond our planet as well as for us in our everyday lives.
For his work, Professor Lambeck receives $250,000 plus the prestige of being given Australia's highest honour in the scientific sphere.
His fascination with science is undimmed.
“The Earth is remarkable,” he said. “It’s a constant journey of discovery.”
Professor Lambeck's own journey of discovery started at university when he studied surveying at the University of New South Wales and then at Oxford University in Britain where he studied space geodesy (the exact measuring of the earth using satellites). This was in 1967 when the space race was under way.
He said he was not a glittering student at high school in Wollongong but then realised in university that there were questions that simply didn't have answers. That fired his imagination and his desire to learn.
He observes today that there are students who do well in high school but then "fade out" because they aren't prepared to question enough. He recommends a "healthy scepticism" and a readiness to discuss and question.
His great revelation was to realise that the planet's gravity field was much more complex than previously thought. This realisation had big implications for spaceflight because gravity affects the trajectory of satellites and spacecraft.
He also realised that gravity fields were changing as the planets shifted, and that led him to look at changing sea-levels. And that is a big factor in the rise and fall of civilisations.
Sometimes, he uses simple idea: at the moment, for example, he and his colleagues are studying Roman fish tanks on the coast of Italy. These had to be exactly placed - too high and the fish wouldn't swim in at high tide; too low and the fish would swim out easily even at low tide.
These tanks tell the scientists where the sea level was in Roman times. From that, they can work out how much the sea level has risen since.
Professor Lambeck says the big rise in sea levels has been since the Industrial Revolution - when humans started burning coal on a large scale.
By measuring these changes over not only millions of years but also day to day, Professor Lambeck and his colleagues hope to be able to predict future changes and that has huge implications for communities as they address rising sea levels.
Professor Lambeck migrated to Australia after the war as a child with his parents who had been in the resistance to the Nazis.
He has received more than 30 international awards and distinctions and served as President of the Australian Academy of Science from 2006 to 2010.
The other prize-winners were:
- The Finisar team (Prize for Innovation);
- Lee Berger (Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year);
- Jack Clegg (Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year);
- Geoff Rogers (Prime Minister's Prize for New Innovators);
- Brett Crawford (Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools);
- Scott Sleap (Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools).