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Bionic eye restores sight for visually impaired -

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Robyn Williams: Below Kazakhstan they say, our kids, in the league of those doing science at school. But is it as simple as that?

The Science Show. We shall hear from the dean of sciences in Adelaide about the national priorities we have. Joe Giaime of LIGO about the next stages of tracking gravitational waves. And meet the ancestors of blue whales, the biggest beasts on Earth.

Back to Kazakhstan that everyone is talking about. Two points. First, we've been aware of the dire figures in schools for science and maths since 1991, and know exactly how to solve the problem; by putting designated science teachers in primary schools. We meet such teachers every year in the Prime Minister's Science Prizes. Appoint more. Secondly, there are plenty of young people doing great stuff. We saw some this week on the news, boys at Sydney Grammar School making world-beating drugs.

And now, meet a pupil from Melbourne who is showing how standards can be as high as you like. She is researching the bionic eye.

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: My name is Zofia Witkowski-Blake and I'm a student at Mac.Robertson Girls' High School. I'm going to read my speech about the bionic eye.

Are you a cyborg? Wait, hold on a second, let me rephrase. Do you have a pacemaker, an intrauterine device, a hip replacement or a hearing aid? Cyborgs have been among us for quite a while now, even if that term isn't generally used for them. But if the definition of that word is a person who has technological components within their body, then 'cyborg' is exactly the term that we should use.

There may soon be another addition to the ranks of these exciting tools. It's called the bionic eye and it's a system or a machine that aims to use technology to restore sight to those who'd lost it. Right here in Melbourne there are several of these implants being developed, at Melbourne University and through Bionic Vision Australia. But there is one bionic eye that I find particularly fascinating because it would work even if someone's eyes and optic nerve, which connects the eyes to the visual centre in the brain, were damaged or even gone entirely. This system is called Genarris, and it is being developed at Monash University. It uses a pair of camera-mounted glasses with a processor about the size of a mobile phone to understand and compress the visual information. That visual information is then transmitted wirelessly into several ceramic tiles in the visual cortex, right at the back of your head. Using electrical impulses, what is essentially a dot to dot picture is formed of your surroundings.

Now, this may not sound like much, but the fact is that most of what those of us who are sighted see around us is actually just fabrication. It's created by our brains. Look around yourself right now, at the ground, up to the sky, it seems like everything is in focus and detailed, right? Well, what if I told you that the area of vision in which you can see detail is about the size of a fingernail at arm's length. What's happening whenever you look around is that your brain is extrapolating your environment with very little actual information from your eyes. What you actually see is composed not just of light bouncing back into your eyes, but overlays of recollections, expectations, visualisations and even conscious thought. Simply put, most of what you see is your brain filling in the gaps, and the hope is that with the bionic eye this will allow that dot to dot picture to be totally filled in.

Now, this technology would be primarily of use to those who lost their sight at a later age. Many of those who've been blind since birth are not only fully capable and adjusted to living without it but have developed extraordinary acuity in the other senses that they have. For example, a man in the US uses a system of mouth clicks to hear the world around him. These clicks bounce off objects, and from the noise they make he can tell where those objects are in his surroundings. He can even use this ability to ride a bicycle. Now, that's amazing. But the point is that the bionic eye would be used as a visual prosthetic. It would work well for some and not as well for others.

So maybe cyborgs aren't going to be like the ones in the movies with X-rays and super powers. But what a bionic eye will do is allow people to do some things that we normally take for granted. To be able to exit a crowded room in an emergency. To be able to know when someone you're talking to has left the conversation. To be able to get around on your own. To be able to cross the street without fear. And personally, I think that's just as super as it gets.

Robyn Williams: Well, that talk, Zofia, was perfect. How did you come to write it?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: Well, it took quite a while. I remember being in the City Library sitting down feeling extremely stressed and thinking I have absolutely no idea how I'm going to convey this to a bunch of people who may not have studied science.

Robyn Williams: What made you do that though, why were you prompted to…?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: I think the idea of cyborgs, as you can probably tell, is extremely interesting to me. I am a great lover of science fiction. And the fact that we now have this ability, and it's not only the ability to help people be able to see with technology but it's even happening right here in Melbourne, just was amazing to me. And in fact because I did this speech I was then able to go to Monash and meet the people who've been making it, which was just an incredible experience.

Robyn Williams: Is it common to do that sort of speech at the age of…what, you're 15 are you?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: Yes. Well, a lot of the other speeches that were happening at the speech contest that I did this were more revolving around social issues because I think people generally believe that social issues, it's easier to get an emotional pull from those. However, it's pretty emotionally pulling, I must say, this issue.

Robyn Williams: But the standard is in your school that you do speeches as a regular thing to make sure you are articulate and so on?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: Not so much. This was an out-of-school speech competition. We do have a very strong debating program, but generally speech competitions and debating are interschool, so you compete against other schools in the area, and even within the four academic select entry schools in Melbourne.

Robyn Williams: Tell me, do you just happen to listen to ABC radio?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: I certainly do. I do a lot of carpentry with my mother and we always have either ABC Radio National playing or one of quite a few other podcasts going on.

Robyn Williams: Is that unusual amongst your friends?

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: I certainly do have other friends who listen to podcasts, maybe not as many who listen to Radio National, but perhaps, I don't know.

Robyn Williams: Well, plenty say they are, like Zofia. That was Zofia Witkowski-Blake from Mac.Robertson Girls' High School in Melbourne. And yes, all we need now is to ensure (the Prime Minister's favourite word) that standards in public schools get lifted as well.

This week the marine scientists announced that 67% of corals off northern Queensland have been bleached and died, which raises the question about unexpected consequences. Corals, you see, affect weather. Did you know this? And the ship, the Investigator, sailed from Hobart up north to measure the effects. Here's Zoran Ristovski at the Queensland University of Technology.

Zoran Ristovski: Yes, the ship spent most of its time south, but this is the first time it's going into the Great Barrier Reef.

Robyn Williams: How far, how extensively?

Zoran Ristovski: We went up to Cairns on the inside part and on the outside part maybe up to Townsville.

Robyn Williams: And looking at a variety of corals or just one particular sort?

Zoran Ristovski: We were looking at the reef as a whole, the emissions from the whole reef.

Robyn Williams: How do you measure the emissions from a reef? Because surely they would mix with the water, how do you tell it apart from the general ocean?

Zoran Ristovski: Well, that's why we did the measurements on the outside part of the reef, but we also did measurements then on the inside part of the reef, and then we could see the difference. We also had a group of oceanographers and ocean modellers from CSIRO. They developed something called the eReef. So they have the whole reef, like a big model of the reef and the water flow, so we sit in a certain spot and they do the modelling for us and tell us exactly how and where the water flow is, where it comes from, and that helps us move the ship in the right position so we would get direct emissions from there. This is water, not air.

Robyn Williams: So the living corals, which also contain algae of course, give off something which is not there over an area of water where there is no coral beneath presumably. So what do they give off?

Zoran Ristovski: Well, not just that…DMS, dimethyl sulphate is the substance which is one of the driving substances of the climate, over the oceans mainly. It's something that algae in general emit. But coral is the only animal which also exudes, emits this substance, DMS. So both the algae living with the coral symbiotically, the zooxanthellae, and the coral itself emit DMS in water, that's why you get higher concentrations around corals.

Robyn Williams: And this is a sulphate, is it?

Zoran Ristovski: It's sulphate which goes from water, it then goes into the air. It's water-soluble gas. And once it enters the atmosphere it reacts with various oxidants under sunlight and forms sulphuric acid which then forms tiny particles which can seed clouds.

Robyn Williams: It seeds the clouds which then rain on you, do they?

Zoran Ristovski: Or not.

Robyn Williams: Yes, well, you've got it both ways then, haven't you.

Zoran Ristovski: Yes, the effect can go both ways. So if you have too many of these seeds, what will happen is that your cloud droplets will become smaller and they won't rain, and eventually they will evaporate. So it can go in both directions. If there's no seeds then these seeds are necessary to form the clouds. If there's too many of them the clouds become white and they don't rain.

Robyn Williams: So you've taken zillions of measurements, and presumably, having just left the ship, you've not come to a conclusion yet about whether it's yes or no. How long will it take you?

Zoran Ristovski: Realistically at least a year, and then I would give it realistically another year to synthesise it into a good story.

Robyn Williams: Can't you just take a picture of the clouds above the reef and say, hey, they're different, boing?

Zoran Ristovski: No, you can't. It's really complex. You see the cloud but what we were looking at is where did the seeds that form that cloud come from. So was there like a lift from the ocean upwards and then the cloud was formed, or did the air come somewhere from further away, so those of all the things that we are looking at, and we have to know.

Robyn Williams: What if the reef does have that effect on clouds and the weather, what's the implication?

Zoran Ristovski: Well, the implication would be that the reef will change. I won't say die, it's a hard word. Because the sea surface temperature is going up and we can't stop that. So with the increase of the sea surface temperature, the current species of coral living there will most likely die off. Will some new coral species take over? I don't know, I'm not a coral person, but that's one of the theories I heard.

So what we are looking at is if the coral and the reef dies off or when the coral, I would say, when the reef dies off or changes, not if but when, what consequence will that have on the cloud formation above Queensland, particularly the north part of Queensland? And what consequence will that have on the rainfall pattern? Will it become drier or wetter?

Robyn Williams: I know it may be a different sort of sulphate, but of course people talk about sulphates being in the atmosphere, coming from volcanoes, even with geo-engineering seeding the sky with sulphate. Is this the same animal?

Zoran Ristovski: Yes, it's the same sulphate in the end, it's the sulphuric acid which comes from volcanoes as well and forms these sulphate particles, so exactly the same thing, yes.

Robyn Williams: So when you find that there is a difference, if there is a difference according to the coral, that really on the face of things will be rather troubling, because if you've got this enormous living thing that's affecting the weather and it's dying, the weather will change somehow.

Zoran Ristovski: 70% of the world is covered by oceans, and most of the clouds are actually formed over the oceans. So another thing which we hope that maybe some of our work could infer a more broader picture into what would happen with the increase of the temperature of the ocean, changing the species et cetera, changing that DMS flux.

Robyn Williams: I remember hearing from the people who talk about the Gaia hypothesis, about the…it's all part of the same thing?

Zoran Ristovski: Yes, it's part of that same thing. The Gaia hypothesis, it actually comes from James Lovelock who was one of the founders of that idea, and he was the person who found the link between DMS and cloud seeding and cloud formation. And it goes along that algae emit this DMS substance when they are under stress and exposed to higher temperatures or increased UV radiation. And that DMS oxidises in the air and forms a cloud above the algae, so it will cool it down. We didn't manage to prove it. It sounds interesting and good, but I think 20 years after the hypothesis, and I don't know how many cruises, attempts, we still didn't prove the hypothesis.

Robyn Williams: Well, that's how science works, isn't it, you go out and you get the information and you crunch the numbers, and you've got zillions of numbers, haven't you.

Zoran Ristovski: Oh yes, we've got a lot of…gigabytes of data. So I think now it's going to be a big task of getting enough manpower to go through the data.

Robyn Williams: Congratulations.

Zoran Ristovski: Thank you.

Robyn Williams: Professor Zoran Ristovski from the Queensland University of Technology.

Here once more is Zofia, aged 15, with a poem.

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: This poem is about who I believe is one of the unsung heroes of science, her name is Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and she discovered what the Sun is made of and other stars.

Robyn Williams: Please read.

Zofia Witkowski-Blake: Thank you.

We know who found out about gravity,
Evolution of species, and relativity.
Einstein, Darwin and Newton are all household names,
But who knows about astronomer, Cecilia Payne?

Though her ideas were vast, her hypotheses great,
Gender equality came too late.
She was born in 1900, on 10th May,
In Wendover England, in the UK.

Her father died when she was four years old,
It must have been hard, but Cecilia was bold.
She got a scholarship to Cambridge, aged nineteen.
Studied botany, physics, and chemistry,

She went to a lecture on astronomy,
by Arthur Eddington on his 1919 odyssey.
On this great trip, what Eddington had done,
Is photograph the Moon passing over the Sun.

Cecilia wanted to have a second chance,
To study astronomy, instead of plants.
She finished her studies, in 1923,
But at the time, Cambridge didn’t give girls degrees.

Cecilia left for the US that year.
To the land where she could pursue her career.
The director of the Harvard observatory,
Came to ask her to study astronomy.

He set up a program for women, you see,
And in the spirit of adventure, Cecilia agreed.
She got a doctorate from Harvard in 1925,
The only person to have one, dead, or alive.

Stellar atmospheres, that’s what her thesis was named,
This piece of writing arrived, to great acclaim.
She postulated hydrogen’s abundance in stars,
But this radical conclusion, was put behind bars.

Henry Norris Russell said, ‘I cannot condone,’
But four years later he published it as his own.
For eleven years Cecilia worked, as a technical assistant,
She got no perks.

Her wage was paid out of equipment costs,
This amazing woman, it was Harvard’s loss.
In 1933, she met Serge,
She found a place at Harvard for him to stay.

She married Serge Gaposchkin in 1935,
They stayed as a couple while they both were alive.
She taught classes, did grunt work, she was thought of as lesser,
But in 1956, she became a professor.

Payne was the first, no other woman had.
In the field of astronomy, and Harvard at that.
She died in Massachusetts, in 1979,
At almost eighty years, a long life time.

She influenced astronomers,
And many of her peers,
She taught and published greatly,
Over the years.

Though she discovered
What makes up the Sun,
Cecilia was not remembered,
In the long run.

So when you look in your textbook and see,
In the composition of stars, H is most ample.
Put a smile on your face, and take a moment to say,
I know who discovered that, it was Cecilia Payne.

Robyn Williams: And that was Zofia Witkowski-Blake, aged 15. Folks, welcome to the future!

Zofia Witkowski-BlakeStudent
Mac.Robertson Girls' High School
Albert Park VIC

Further Information
Bionic Vision Australia

PresenterRobyn Williams ProducerDavid Fisher