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The internet came to Australia 20 year ago today, with a fragile link from Hawaii pinging across the seas to Robert Elz - now a fellow of the Melbourne School of Engineering in the Department of Computer Sciences and Software Engineering.

The subject line of what was probably the first message into Australia was straight to the point - ‘Link Up’, it said.  The message was sent by Torben Nielsen, who had been funded by NASA to set up internet links with countries throughout the pacific. Director of e-Research at the University, Professor Leon Sterling, says Melbourne University was chosen as the site for the nation’s first connection because they were leading Australia with UNIX technologies.

It was quite a rollicking journey for Australia’s first ping because there wasn’t a cable laid, the message traveled over a cable from Melbourne to Sydney, then via satellite to the west coast of the US and then back through another cable to Hawaii.

According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures there are 7.1 million internet subscribers in Australia and Professor Sterling says the internet has had a huge impact on the world as it’s grown. 

 “It has changed the way we find things, through Google. It has changed the way we think about knowledge, through Wikipedia. It has changed the way we access and share music. It has changed the way we communicate, with email and Skype and it has changed the way we socialise, with Facebook,” he says.

“As witnessed during the past week, the internet has also changed the way revolutions can happen as witnessed in Iran.”

A leading Melbourne University health expert says one of the main benefits of the NT Intervention has been getting Indigenous health back on the agenda as a major social justice issue in Australia.

Professor Hugh Taylor, who is Harold Mitchell Chair of Indigenous Eye Health at the University of Melbourne, began working alongside Fred Hollows in the seventies, and has for 30 years been striving to eradicate trachoma, a treatable eye disease causing blindness which disproportionately affects Indigenous Australians.

He was present in a NT Aboriginal community two years ago when the first army support teams arrived, and had a chance to observe initial contact.  Although impressed with the way members of the team handled themselves, he says some of their initiatives sought to address needs that had been identified for years, such as housing, community halls and recreation facilities, women’s refuges and an ongoing police presence.

Professor Taylor says if these things are actually delivered through the Intervention, it will make a huge difference, although some of the things that have happened are "less impressive than others".

"In one community I went to, all the houses had been painted on the outside, they look terrific, but nothing has been done inside. They’re terrible.  So there are some things that you have to question.  But it takes time to build houses, rebuild schools and community services; and it also takes money.  I think that’s starting, but it has a long, long way to go.

"The worst feature (of the intervention) to my mind - was the absolute crushing and destruction of the Aboriginal leadership.  Anybody who had been working in Aboriginal affairs was basically wiped off by the government ... People were grieving, mourning not only the impact of the intervention, but the destruction of the Aboriginal leadership and processes, and people were just totally undermined.  So that was a very bad thing to happen, and it should not have happened."

Professor Taylor says although some people are ideologically and philosophically against the practice of quarantining welfare payments (for food and essentials only), there have been some striking results.

"Some of the vocal people are against it because they want the money to spend on alcohol or on gambling ... a huge amount of money changes hands in these communities through card games.

"But the impression I get from speaking to people in the communities is that things are much quieter, there is much less problem from alcohol and noise at night ... much less humbugging for money. Kids are better nourished, and there is a huge change in the range of food and vegetables you can see in the stores."

Ambitious new project to raise literacy and numeracy levels in Victoria’s schools

Pupils taking part in a University of Melbourne and Catholic Education Office Melbourne (CEOM) project have improved their reading ability by at least three times the state average.

The project, being conducted by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in partnership with the CEOM was piloted in 19 Melbourne Catholic primary schools, and the stunning results were achieved after just one year.  Pupils in one school achieved five times the state average gain in reading ability in one year.

Now, the Melbourne Graduate School of Education has secured funding to build on these findings by working with up to 600 schools across Victoria, in partnership with the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, and the Catholic Education Office Melbourne.

Seven out of the nine Victorian government school regions are involved or considering becoming involved in the program; ultimately the University is looking for the program to be made available to all government schools in the state.

As part of the $2million project, which includes $860,000 from the Australian Research Council, University staff work with teams of teachers to show them how to use existing data to improve students’ literacy and numeracy levels.

By working with data from assessments such as NAPLAN (the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy) in the state systems and commercial tests in the Catholic system, teachers learn how to use data to construct tailored ‘learning interventions’ for students, according to their ability.

Professor Patrick Griffin, who is leading the project on behalf of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, says for literacy levels to improve teachers need to target their teaching to support students of every ability, from the highest achievers in the class to the least able.

"By interpreting kids’ test results to show every student’s level of competence, teachers can develop tailored teaching approaches to meet the needs of each individual in their class. The test score then becomes a starting point for teachers rather than an end point of assessment.  It's a simple process and teachers easily and enthusiastically pick up the idea," he says.

"The really exciting outcome is that the literacy levels of all students improve as a result of this model. We’ve heard a lot of negative comments on national testing in the media lately, but this is an example of where test results can be used for positive gains, as long as they are shared with teachers who know how to use them effectively."

More information:

Notes to Editors

* The pilot project conducted by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in partnership with the Catholic Education Office Melbourne was called the Literacy Assessment Project. This project ran between 2005 and 2008.

* The $2m project, which is just starting, is called The influence of evidence-based decisions by collaborative teacher teams on student achievement. This project will address three questions. The first looks at the relationship between the teaching intervention and the student gains, the second investigates the means of scaling the program up, perhaps to statewide level, and the third investigates the means of sustainability over time and locations. This project will be conduced in both Melbourne Catholic Schools and Victorian state schools.

Australia faces severe challenges from changes in climate and our necessary response to these challenges will lead to great changes in our society, says Director of the Festival of Ideas Patrick McCaughey.

“Everyone has heard a lot about climate change and how our temperature is rising, but there are so many other aspects of climate change that need to be taken into account such as food shortages, food fights, food security, and the problem that arable land is drying while the population continues to grow,” he says.

These concerns inspired Dr McCaughey to take the theme of Climate Change/Cultural Change for the University’s first Festival of Ideas which will run from June 15 to 20.

“The Festival has assembled an array of different and distinguished voices - scientists, architects, city planners, environmentalists, social scientists, commentators and creative writers to tackle these issues and offer solutions to some of our most pressing problems.”

“The Festival will set off a chain reaction of ideas that will stimulate, excite and offer hope to the community. I hope people walk away from the Festival with a sense that there are solutions as well as problems.”

Iranians go to the polls tomorrow in a much anticipated presidential election, with the very real prospect of a victory for the reformists and a positive change for the nation, according to Melbourne middle east expert, Associate Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh.

Although positive about the prospect of change Associate Professor Akbarzadeh says it will be a close election, with the reformist camp divided between two candidates, risking a split in the reformist vote.

"The reformers have been mobilizing quite significantly, and they’ve been tapping into the energy of this younger generation of voters," he says.  "The fact that reformist candidate Mousavi has gained the endorsement of former President Khatami is encouraging.

"The population is ready for a change, and the changing international environment allows for that degree of optimism.  In the past Iran had always managed to point to American foreign policy, point to the US and its relations with Israel as a problem in the region.

"The Iranian Government has accused the US of being a bully in international affairs, and policies pursued by President George W Bush in a way justified that accusation.  With the change in Washington, with Obama in power, there has been a change of attitude, a change of mood, which does facilitate a change in Iran.  The hardliners can no longer point to the US as a bully, and try to ‘circle the wagons’."

Associate Professor Akbarzadeh says while the hardliners have been in power (about four years), Iran has effectively become a pariah state in the region, with President Ahmadinejad having mismanaged the economy and adopting a very confrontational posture toward the west, or the international community.

He says President Obama’s appeal to the people of Iran at Nowruz (Iranian new year) - in which he talked about their great civilization and his respect for their culture and contribution to peace in the region - were important and unprecedented gestures that effectively disarmed the hardliners.

"I think the people of Iran are responding to President Obama’s charm offensive, and appreciate there has been a genuine change in US policy," he says.

"President Obama is obviously concerned about Iranian nuclear ambitions, but by the same token he is putting that problem within the broader context of the middle east, he places that problem as one among many in the region, which I think is the right approach to regional politics."

In the wake of 9/11, the world was waiting for someone powerful to say that ‘our enemy is not Islam’ according to Professor Abdullah Saeed. He says this moment finally arrived when President Barack Obama made a landmark speech to the Muslim world.

“All of the issues Obama talked about in his address were closely connected to the interests of both America and the Muslim World. Obama presented the view that there is no clash of civilisations, that there is no clash between Islam and the West,” he says.

Professor Saeed says that what Obama presented to the world in his address is a view that we need to walk away from a view that Islam equals extremism.

“There are Muslims who do awful things in the word in the name of Islam, but that should not be the total story. Just as America can’t be reduced to a few voices, neither can the Muslim world,” he says.

Professor Saeed says Obama’s speech was a message of hope and optimism that should aid in creating a new partnership between America and the Muslim world.

“Of course a speech has its limitations, but this is a speech by the most powerful person in the world, and by addressing the Muslim world he is making a significant, timely and relevant step.”

“A lot will be happening in the next few months to make this work. It will require a lot of effort on part of the Muslim world and the Americans to take this gesture of good will to the next level - it will take time.”

While the Australian economy recorded positive growth over the last economic quarter, Associate Professor Mark Crosby from the Melbourne Business School says Australia is still in recession.

"Most economists would not use the journalistic interpretation of recession i.e. two quarters of negative growth.  Most economists would have a pretty rubbery definition of it, but generally the settle on something 'significantly below trend'.  The Australian economy IS significantly below trend, with regards to GDP growth, so I would say we are in recession."

"In the US there is a committee that decides whether the country is in recession, and they dont just look at the GDP numbers they take in all sorts of factors.  That committee put the US economy in recession in November 2007."

"I think if we had a similar sort of structural committee in Australia, they would put the economy in recession around about September last year, if you took into account all the data.  Even now if you look at the structure of GDP, the farm sector- and its recovery from the drought - has been what's kept us in positive growth, where most other sectors experienced negative or zero growth."

However Associate Professor Crosby says that Australia still has recorded some positive numbers in the last quarter.  "Our 0.4% growth is better than most OECD countries - we're number one for GDP growth and bottom in terms of unemployment rate - and certainly the best in the G7, and signifcantly better than most of the other countries in our region. 

"But our economy is still very soft, our growth is still very poor, just not as bad as other countries.  To do better we do need our trading partners to be in better shape."

You can read more of Associate Professor Crosby's thoughts on the current GDP data in today's edition of The Age: 

Measuring the size and age of the universe has won University of Melbourne Professor Jeremy Mould and his international colleagues the prestigious 2009 Gruber Prize for Cosmology, announced by the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation overnight in the United States.

Professor Jeremy Mould of the University of Melbourne’s School of Physics shares the prize worth $US500,000 with Wendy Freedman, Director of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Pasadena, California, and Robert Kennicutt, Director of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England.

The award recognizes the astronomers’ leadership in the definitive measurement of the Hubble constant, which explains the expansion rate of the universe since its beginning, thus connecting the universe's size with its age.

The findings of the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project in 1999 have since been confirmed and recognized as one of the most important measurements in astronomy.

The expansion rate of the universe has been hotly debated since Edwin Hubble’s original discovery in 1929 that galaxies were rushing away from each other at a rate proportional to their distance, i.e. the farther away, the faster the recession.

“We were able to greatly improve the accuracy of the measurement, “says Professor Mould. “We are receiving this prize now because a lot of additional work has confirmed our findings, allowing the prize givers to be very confident of our results.” 

During 10 years of research the Mould, Freedman and Kennicutt team used the Hubble Telescope to observe 18 galaxies out to 65 million light-years. They discovered almost 800 Cepheid variable stars, a special class of pulsating star used for accurate distance measurement. Although Cepheids are rare, they provide a very reliable "standard candle" for estimating intergalactic distances. The team used the stars to calibrate many different methods for measuring distances.

They ultimately measured the Hubble constant at 72 km per second per megaparsec (a megaparsec is 3.26 million light years, and a light year is about 5.9 trillion miles) with an uncertainty of 10 percent. This means that a galaxy appears to be moving 160 thousand miles per hour faster for every 3.26 million light-years away from Earth.

On this information they were able to estimate the age of the universe to be 13 billion years old. The universe's age is calculated using the expansion rate from precise distance measurements, and the calculated age is refined based on whether the universe appears to be accelerating or decelerating, given the amount of matter observed in space.

The resolution of the decades-long debate about the value of the Hubble constant is enabling scientists to answer fundamental questions about the universe.

“What the Hubble constant also does is to tell us the density of the universe. This controls the future evolution of the universe, which is accelerating,” says Professor Mould.

Measuring the Hubble constant was one of the three major goals for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope before it was launched in 1990.

Professor Mould’s current work continues in further clarifying the reliability of the Cepheid variable stars as a measurement of light and distance of galaxies.

Freedman, Kennicutt, and Mould will receive the Prize on August 4, 2009, at the opening ceremony of the International Astronomical Union's General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

BIO Information
Jeremy Mould is a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne, working in the astrophysics group of the School of Physics.

Previous appointments include Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in the US, Professor of Astronomy at the Australian National University, Director of the ANU's Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics, and Professor of Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology's Palomar Observatory.

Professor Mould has been strongly connected with the Hubble Space Telescope program. He was co-Principal Investigator for the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project on the Extragalactic Distance Scale.  The goal of that project, completed in 1999, was to measure the Hubble Constant, and thus the age and size of the Universe.

He is author of more than 400 research papers in professional journals.

City dwellers and farmers must work together to improve water efficiency, or the food demands of our growing population will not be met says Associate Professor Malano. “Water efficiency is everyone’s business, both city dwellers and farmers. If nothing is done about managing our state’s water more effectively then the consequences could be very severe,” he says.

“With the population of Melbourne expected to reach five million, we could end up with a situation where we simply can’t satisfy the city’s water demands and our agricultural areas simply can’t satisfy our growing food demands.”

Associate Professor Malano says one of the best tools for ensuring more efficient use of our water is an aggressive pricing policy. He was not alarmed that the cost of water is set to increase by up to 100 per cent during the next five years, instead saying that a more aggressive pricing policy would encourage businesses, especially water intensive industries, to recycle more water. “There are certain types of water uses that require specific quality, but recycled water for example can be used easily for agricultural purposes,” he says.

“The plan to use 100 per cent recycled water is going to become a necessity. We need to look at all the sources of water that we have, and think about using them in different ways.”

Dr Geoffrey Vaughan, a former Wallaby and Melbourne University Rugby Football Club player, says the University has had a long history against the University of Sydney.

"Melbourne University started in 1909, the same year as the Victorian Rugby Union.  And the VRU to promote rugby in Victoria paid for an invited Sydney University team to come to Melbourne for a Melbourne University-Sydney University and we celebrate that this Saturday.  That started the Melbourne Uni-Sydney Uni games, which continued on regularly until the First World War, when rugby in Melbourne faded."

"After the war, funnily enough, Melbourne University started playing rugby league, which had started up in Victoria in a very junior sort of a way, but by 1923 the University club switched back to union specifically so they could play in the thriving intervarsity competition."

"There's been a number of intervarsity matches of note.  Intervarsity rugby has generally been dominated by Sydney University and Queensland University, the home states of rugby union, but Melbourne won several intervarsity matches in the 1930s." 

"We've also had a strong impact on rugby internationally, as a number of wallabies have come from MURFC.  For example, in 1934-35 Weary Dunlop became the first Victorian born Wallaby, and he had a long association with the club."

The Melbourne University Rugby Football Club (MURFC) will celebrate its 100th anniversary with an exhibition match against Sydney University Football Club on Saturday 6 June on the main University of Melbourne oval.