Bonzer! Science and Tech from Down Under


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EE Times Weekend Saturday 17 July 2021


The Artful Engineer

The Mystery of the Magnetic Termites

Sally Ward-Foxton

It’s no secret that Australia is full of natural wonders. Having evolved in isolation, separately from the rest of the world, Australia’s ecosystems are completely unique. Australian flora and fauna are like nothing else in the world, from koalas and kangaroos to duck-billed platypuses and Tasmanian devils to tarantulas that live underwater and “tree lobsters” (really, a species of stick insect the size of your hand).

One of Australia’s most intriguing natural mysteries is the case of the magnetic termites, found only in the Northern Territory.

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These minute animals are not really magnetic, but they build mounds up to 4 meters tall that are very, very thin and aligned north to south, like a compass needle. The alignment is accurate enough for lost travelers to navigate their way around the bush.

Each mound can be home to up to a million termites, with numerous chambers and galleries inside. Some of the termites collect food during the dry season to be stored in the mound, while others never leave the mound itself. During the wet season, the colony is safe inside the mound while the ground is flooded, and they can survive on the food they already have stored.

How and why the termites align their mounds north to south with such an extreme shape is still a mystery. The current hypothesis relates to avoiding the extremely hot North Australian sun. Aligning the mounds north to south means that as small as possible a profile faces the sun at noon, which may help to keep interior temperatures down.

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So, nothing to do with magnetism. However, we do know that the termites can sense Earth’s magnetic field somehow. An experiment in which scientists buried magnets in the ground either side of certain mounds led to these mounds being abandoned, perhaps because the termites’ sense of direction had been affected. It seems the termites can sense Earth’s magnetic field, but exactly how they do this is unknown.

If the answer were as simple as keeping the mound cool, wouldn’t other species of termite have discovered this mound architecture for themselves? It’s still a mystery why other types of termites do not appear to do this at all — the magnetically aligned mounds don’t appear anywhere else in the world.

This one of Australia’s natural mysteries remains unsolved.

The Artful Engineer × EE Times

Industrial Design Joins Art With Engineering

In EE Times’ Artful Engineer video series, we delve into the music, painting and photography that enhance the creative insight of the renaissance engineer.

Our encounter with NXP’s Herminio Menchaca taught us that industrial design joins the essence of art and engineering into a single profession. In the world of industrial design, art — rather than art for art's sake — unfolds in products, objects and services that are functional, practical and ergonomic.


Australia Helped Enable the Space Age

George Leopold

The first American orbital space flights required a global network of ground controllers to keep tabs on astronauts and their spacecraft. Later, when astronauts traveled to the moon, a ground relay station in the southern hemisphere was essential for navigation and tracking when two other sites were out of position.

In the days before satellite communication networks, that spot on Earth was Australia, a location that would one day receive and relay to the rest of the world the first live images from the surface of the moon.

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When John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in February 1962, the residents of Perth switched on their lights in greeting. Against the darkness of the Indian Ocean and the Australian outback, Glenn reported: “Just to my right, I can see a big pattern of lights apparently right on the coast. I can see the outline of a town and a very bright light just to the south of it.

“The lights show up very well, and thank everybody for turning them on, will you?” Glenn radioed to fellow Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper. Cooper and, later, NASA “capcoms” manning ground stations at Muchea on Australia’s western coast and inland at Woomera were taken by the vastness of the outback and the site of kangaroos, wallabies, and koalas.

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When humans left Earth orbit for the moon in the late 1960s, NASA’s Deep Space Network provided global coverage. The network included Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and an Australian network at Parkes that included a radio telescope at Honeysuckle Creek.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin decided to walk earlier than scheduled, that meant the tracking station near Canberra would be in position to receive the TV signal from the moon and transmit it around the world.

But the station at Parkes did not have clear line of sight to the moon; Honeysuckle Creek, a bit farther east at a slightly higher elevation, did.

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While the Goldstone radio telescope was receiving a TV signal from the moon, the first images of Armstrong coming down the ladder of the lunar module were upside-down. Houston quickly switched to Honeysuckle Creek, which received and transmitted eight minutes of perhaps the most historic images ever broadcast.

The episode is hilariously portrayed in the film “The Dish.”

Honeysuckle Creek is now a historic site. What the engineers there pulled off in July 1969 remains a source of pride to Australians who enabled the rest of the world to watch humans step foot on another world.


Hartmann Wavefront Sensor Design in Adelaide

Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

Working toward my Ph.D., I had the privilege of working with a number of researchers at the University of Adelaide. The physics department of this Australian university hosts experiments on many fields, in particular astronomical and space sciences, atomic, molecular, particle and plasma physics, and optical physics.

The time I spent in Adelaide was focused on the design of a wavefront sensor to be installed on Michelson interferometers, such as Virgo and LIGO for gravitational wave research.

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Wavefront sensors are instruments used to measure a distortion in the image formed by an optical system compared with the original (these distortions are also called abberrations). The main element is the sub-aperture array, or Hartmann plate, that breaks up the input wavefront into individual rays recorded by an image sensor.

The aim was to design not only the hardware but also the software interface to analyze the image. For the hardware, a fast data-acquisition system was used with a digital camera that provides high-sensitivity 12-bit images with a 1K × 1K spatial resolution. The software was run on Matlab. Below is a schematic image of the layout of the Hartmann Sensor.

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On the right, you can see an image with many pixels, i.e., a representation of the discretization of the signal after passing through the Hartmann plate (a plate with many holes) and acquired by an FPGA-based data-acquisition system. W' is the distorted wavefront to be measured.

The objective of the software is to reconstruct the image of the distorted wavefront, comparing it with a reference image that indicates the perfect state of the system. In addition to the correct choice of hardware, the design parameters include the size of the Hartmann plate (hole diameter and distance) and the distance R to get the image in focus. The spot pattern on the image sensor is recorded as a digital image and R must be accurately calculated to prevent systematic errors in the gradient of the wavefront change.

The Hartmann sensor we designed in Adelaide was installed at the Virgo and LIGO gravitational wave observatories in Italy and the U.S.

Bragging Rights

Brian Santo

Thus far, there have been six sets of Nobel spouses and seven parent-child Nobel pairs. There have been several husband-and-wife collaborators who were awarded a joint Nobel, but only one parent-child team has thus far ever won for their work together. William Henry Bragg and his son, William Lawrence Bragg, shared the 1915 Nobel for Physics. While their experiments with X-rays were conducted in England, it just so happened the Braggs were from Australia.

The elder Bragg was born in England but was hired in 1885 by the University of Adelaide to teach mathematics and physics (the latter of which he learned on the job). “Going to Australia was like sunshine and fresh, invigorating air,” he later recalled.

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Wilhelm Röntgen had identified X-rays in 1895. William Henry was fascinated. When a young Lawrence fell off his tricycle, his father used X-rays to examine the boy’s broken arm, believed to be the first medical use of X-rays in Australia.

The elder Bragg returned to England with his family in 1908 and was subsequently appointed to the Cavendish Chair at the University of Leeds. X-rays still had not been fully characterized yet, and both Braggs remained interested in the phenomenon. Lawrence enrolled at Cambridge and, while there, worked out what would later become known as Bragg’s law, which described the behavior of X-rays when meeting a crystal lattice. Son and father built an apparatus to test the theory, which proved out. In reporting the results, the elder Bragg alluded to his son’s contributions without using his name, a slight that, by some accounts, forever rankled Lawrence.

When the Braggs were honored with the Nobel, Lawrence became the youngest recipient ever, at 25 years old, a distinction he would retain until Malala Yousafzai received the 2014 Nobel Peace prize at age 17.

Lawrence would, by the way, end up being associated with more Nobel-winning research. He was director of the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA in February 1953. Bragg nominated the two (along with Maurice Wilkins) for their Nobel.

After the Braggs were awarded the Nobel, it would be another 30 years before another Australian would follow (Howard Florey, Physiology or Medicine, in 1945). There have been 12 Australian recipients in total so far.

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Tim Phillips: ‘A Great Team Will Almost Always Beat a Great Idea’

Tim Phillips has had a 25-year career in the semiconductor industry. He has served as chief operating officer and as SVP of sales and marketing since founding Empower Semiconductor in 2014. Today, he serves as Empower’s president and CEO.

In prior roles, Tim served as VP of North America for Infineon, where he was responsible for more than $600 million in annual sales. Previously, Tim founded the Enterprise Power BU at International Rectifier, where he served as VP and general manager, growing the business to more than $150 million in annual revenue.

Tim earned both his MBA and BSEE from the University of Rhode Island. He holds 17 U.S. patents, with several others pending.

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Image: Empower Semiconductor

What personal projects will you be working on this weekend, Tim?

Typical weekends are focused on family time. This upcoming weekend, my wife and I will be preparing my backyard, food, and activities for my daughter’s high school graduation party. She’ll be headed off in the fall for Worcester Polytechnic Institute, studying biomedical engineering.

What was your first job in the industry?

Analog and power IC design engineer at Cherry Semiconductor (later acquired by ON Semiconductor).

Where is your favorite holiday destination?

Everywhere in Italy, but particularly the Amalfi Coast.

Have you taken up any new hobbies during the pandemic?

While no new ones, I rekindled my favorite one: lead electric guitar. I love to rock it out with heavy metal riffs.

Who is your favourite musician, writer, or artist?

Pearl Jam. My college band used to play the entire collection on demand at local pubs and clubs.

What advice would you give to people wanting to start a company?

A great team is critical to the success of a startup. A great team will almost always beat a great idea. Also, the investment partner you choose needs to be well-aligned with your philosophy and market and be prepared to back you for the long haul.


Whither Semiconductors? The Wheels on the Bus Go ‘Round and ‘Round

The perfect way to round up the week, EE Times On Air offers thirty minutes of audio journalism every Friday on the week's most compelling stories in electronics.

On this week’s podcast: As the semiconductor sector evolves, we tend to scrutinize the evolutionary steps – the new technologies, the mergers and acquisitions. That elides the big question: what is the industry evolving toward? A discussion with Tirias Research analyst Jim McGregor on where this bus is heading.

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