Fascination of Science previous lectures

Massey University Auckland scientists take you into the fascinating world of scientific discoveries.

How your DNA makes you, you

Dr Olin Salinder, Massey University

Recent technological advances have made it possible to figure out the sequence of all three billion basepairs in the human genome. Scientists have since used this data to understand ancestry, to predict health outcomes and even solve crimes.

Dr Olin Silander discussed how these technological advances in DNA sequencing came about, how they help us to understand human history and ancestry, and whether knowing your genome sequence actually helps to predict how you look, feel, and behave.

Life of Pi

Professor Rod Downey, Victoria University, Wellington

In this talk, Professor Downey, awarded the Rutherford Medal in 2018, will examine the history of how we began to understand the number pi over the last four millennia.
This is also the story of the development of a branch of modern mathematics called analysis; a story still being told today.

Predicting GDP using machine learning


Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on its own is not a very sexy topic, but trying to predict it using machine learning and data analysis might be!

Although often criticised as an economic measure, the problem that needs to be solved is not GDP’s relevance, but the ability to get quick up-to-date indicators of GDP in a relevant time frame. Information on what happened three months ago is of limited use.

We will look at the colourful history of GDP including criticisms and some clever global estimation strategies. Finally, our approach to building a real-time GDP predictor using machine learning will be outlined, together with its forecasting results from the last six months.

Ecology and infectious diseases: a mathematical perspective


If you push an ecosystem too far the rules change. Parasites have been described as the dark matter in ecosystems, always there but often overlooked. Ecosystems may change for many reasons, including human actions and invasion by pests or pathogens. As ecosystems change new infectious diseases may emerge, and existing infections may reappear or change their host range. Mathematical models are necessary to unravel the complicated interactions between ecology and the epidemiology of infectious diseases.

This is the story of a 27 year collaboration between New Zealand and the Netherlands, and how mathematics has been used to describe epidemics and pandemics.

The light fantastic: Dizzying interactions between light and matter


Nature provides fascinating examples of nanotechnology, creating functional entities from the bottom-up; from molecules to materials & devices. But this is not the nanotechnology of miniature submarines and nano-bots; it is that of molecular biology, the wet nanotechnology of biopolymers and their assemblies. It is the nanotechnology of DNA condensation and transcription, of protein fibers and molecular motors. It is the physics of the nanoscale that is so elegantly exploited and Brownian motion that brings the dance to life.


In order to take a trip down the rabbit hole of such exquisite molecular machinery scientists need not only to see but also to feel the nanoworld. Optical tweezers (OT), for which Arthur Askin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, are one of the exciting tools that can be used to apply and measure minute forces, and they do so, not using tiny mechanical grippers, but using highly focused beams of light. The talk will describe how OT perform this remarkable task and our journey to implement them in order to stretch a single strand of DNA.

Through the looking glass: Host-parasite coevolution and sex


Why do males exist? The most common answer is that males are needed for reproduction; but that is not true for many species of both plants and animals. Why, then, is the earth not dominated by clonally reproducing females? Surely cloning is a more efficient way to reproduce.


So why, in general, is there sex? The question has been raised by many prominent evolutionary biologists, including Darwin; but the answer remains elusive.


This talk will present 30-plus years of research on "why sex?”, highlighting the Red Queen Hypothesis, which posits that parasites select against successful clonal lineages, once they become common in the population.

Demented yeast and obese flies: model organisms in biomedical research


What do obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer have in common? Their causes root in an imbalance of highly complex mechanisms that control thousands of biochemical reactions in trillions of cells in the human body.


The complexity of these processes demands the use of ‘model organisms’ in biomedical research, such as yeast, fruit flies, or roundworms, to obtain a better understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms in healthy and diseased cells.


The elucidation of these processes in humans is a mere impossible task – and who would ever agree to experiments on their own body?

Sensual Mathematics


What are the possibilities for enhancing interaction between contemporary mathematics and arts? What will dialogue in different levels of education and research mean for society? This talk looks at the recent multidisciplinary activities challenging the traditions and communication of mathematics and arts that have taken place at Aalto University in Finland. These activities have provided a new type of platform to share the beauty of mathematics.  Many outcomes and byproducts of our up-to-date experiments are perfect for applications in digital technologies such as programming, CAD, 3D printing, virtual- and augmented reality. Some scenarios for the future development are presented.

Putting on the Squeeze: High-Pressure Physics and Chemistry


We are put under pressure all the time - if not by us or others - our atmosphere does the job! All the air above us weighs us down. What happens to matter if we increase this pressure further? At pressures in the inner core of the earth where we find about 300 million times the atmospheric pressure, or at even higher pressures found inside stars?

Gases like oxygen and hydrogen eventually become metallic - conducting electric current. Come and see experiments to understand what pressure is, how it influences our life and get an insight into current research on materials under ultra-high pressure.

Games everywhere

professor thomas Pfeiffer

Game theory is the science of strategic decision-making. Having its roots in the analysis of parlour games like poker, it developed in the 1940’s into a full-fetched mathematical framework that proved extremely prolific in a number of scientific disciplines. Today, game theory is applied to everything from political problems, economics and human behaviour to the evolution of animals and the biochemistry of microbes. Even popular culture is full of references to game theory – just think of game shows like Golden Balls, or what The Joker does with the two ferries in The Dark Knight. In his lecture, Thomas will introduce you to this fascinating research field. Let the games begin!

Evolution of life's complexity


There is a common misconception that humans are the pinnacle of evolution and life’s complexity, that we are somehow the natural destination of the evolutionary process. However, Charles Darwin came up with the idea that life can be explained by a simple algorithmic process - natural selection. Natural selection is the most important idea the world has ever been presented with. In this talk, Paul will discuss how natural selection helps to explain biological complexities of the evolutionary process and life as we know it.

Fifty shades of display: solving the bird colour problem


Birds display an astonishing diversity of plumage colours.  The brilliant and striking coloration of their feathers have inspired and fascinated us, and to this day continue to puzzle us. Indeed, even measuring how colourful birds are is challenging because colour is a complex, multi-dimensional trait that is seen differently by the birds compared to us.

In this talk Jim described the problem of colourfulness in birds - how to measure it and why both males and females have it in so many different species.

Gems of Ramanujan and their Lasting Impact on Mathematics

Ken Ono (Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Mathematics at Emory University and incoming Maclaurin Lecturer 2017)

Mathematician Ramanujan's work has has a truly transformative effect on modern mathematics, and continues to do so as we understand further lines from his letters and notebooks.

In this lecture, some of the studies of Ramanujan that are most accessible to the general public will be presented and how Ramanujan's findings fundamentally changed modern mathematics. We will also discuss the influences on his work.

The speaker is associate producer of the film The Man Who Knew Infinity (starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons) about Ramanujan.

Serendipity and the discovery of new protein chemistry from the microbial world

Ted Baker (Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery and the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland)

The advent of genome sequencing, some 20 years ago, brought a vast array of new data, but also indicated how much is still unknown about the natural world.

In this talk Ted Baker described some of the unexpected findings, and potential new applications, that can come from exploring some of the “unknown” proteins encoded in genome sequences.

By targeting genes for proteins predicted to be displayed on the outside surfaces of bacteria, his team discovered bonds that form spontaneously when the host proteins fold up, and can now be used as a molecular “super-glue” to join proteins together for applications in biotechnology.

The microbiome: how the legions of micro organisms within you are affecting your health

David Relman (Thomas C. and Joan M Merigan Professor and Professor of Microbiology and immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine) 

The diversity and intimacy of our relationships with the microbes and viruses that live in and on our body is nothing short of breathtaking. Recent findings raise questions about how these relationships get started early in life, the ways in which they contribute to human health, and how these relationships are maintained in the face of disturbance, especially the major disturbances produced by modern health care and lifestyle.


Our goal is to arrive at a predictive understanding of the microbiome and the mechanisms that underlie resilience. Also develop well-informed strategies for its manipulation that will allow us to maintain or restore health, and avoid or lessen disease.

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Can we teach lasers how to perform brain-inspired information processing?

Professor Ingo Fischer
Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems, Palma, Spain

For decades electronic computers have dominated advances in computing. Nevertheless, for certain tasks, including speech, image and pattern recognition, we humans still easily outperform computers. Moreover, physical limitations in transistor size and the power consumption of electronic computers call for alternative concepts and hardware.

This lecture examined one among these new concepts: brain-inspired information processing. What if we could create learning-based brain-inspired information processing concepts by using light? With a minimal design approach and components that are usually the backbone of our global communication networks (such as a simple semiconductor laser and some optical fibre), powerful computing can be achieved.

Special snowflakes


Fractals and fractal structures are ubiquitous in nature where small scale symmetries are repeated at ever larger scales or large scale symmetries repeated at ever finer detail – we can see this in snowflakes and in the Mandelbrot set.

The remarkable fractal Lorenz Butterfly (the butterfly effect) arising from simple models of weather predictions shows fractal structures naturally arising in chaotic systems.

New marine discoveries at the Kermadec Islands

Dr Libby Liggins (Massey University) and Dr.Tom Trnski (Auckland Museum)

Small, remote islands such as New Zealand’s Kermadec Islands have long been revered as natural laboratories­. Here we can examine the processes that generate and maintain biodiversity.

Typically, the biodiversity of the marine environments surrounding islands is less-studied. However, our recent expeditions to these Islands have exponentially increased our knowledge of the marine biodiversity. This highlights the scientific and conservation importance of this region.

Dr Liggins and Dr Trnski have dived and explored the Kermadec islands and will share some, until now, secrets of the intriguing marine biodiversity from this special place. They will talk about their expeditions and highlight recent discoveries.

Gravitational waves: listening in to the sounds of the universe

Professor Joachim Brand

This lecture examined how the detection of gravitational waves resembles listening more than seeing and how the merging of two black holes was 'heard', a discovery that most likely could never have been made with conventional telescopes.

Joachim also looked at the amazing technology of laser interferometry that made this detection possible, and the development of quantum technologies that will make future detectors even more sensitive.

Antibiotic resistance: how did this happen and what happens next?


Antibiotics save countless lives every year, but like an ageing title-fighter, their punch weakens over time.

Dr Heather Hendrickson presented a lecture on what we might do when the antibiotic-era comes to an end and who the next contender will be.

Why is the universe left-handed?

Professor Peter SchwerdtfegeR (massey university)

Single-handedness is present in everything, down to the tiniest molecule. This was startling to 20th Century scientists, who until then presumed the
world was symmetrical. We now know right-handed sugars and left-handed amino acids completely dominate the biochemistry of living organisms.

But if our universe is left-handed, why are humans predominantly right-handed? Even though our hearts are on the left? What is responsible for this leaning toward one side or the other?

Bird brains

Professor Dianne Brunton (Massey university)

Bird song has been enthralling humans for millennia. With urban sprawl scientists have seen how complex song can be affected by environment and how birds adapt and change.

We are discovering that these delightful creatures have a highly complex system of communication that involves many more of their senses. Find out what we know about bird brains, how and why they sing and how their anatomical structure and brain affects their ability to communicate.

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