Inside the Collection

National Science Week: Scientific Icons

It’s National Science Week! Tune in each day to meet MAAS’ science curators, discover objects from our wonderful science collection and find out what a science curator actually does in a day.

The Cochlear implant or 'bionic ear'
The Cochlear implant or ‘bionic ear’, which has restored hearing to thousands of people with profound hearing loss (2003/134/2). Image: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Australia is no stranger to great inventions: from WiFi to Ultrasound scanners, solar cell technology to pacemakers, Australian scientists have been responsible for countless scientific advances that have changed the world for the better. And for National Science Week 2017, we’re taking a look at some great scientific and technological innovations made right here in Australia, now preserved in the MAAS collection.

Bionic Ear

Originally financed through a TV fundraiser due to lack of interest from the Government or other investors, Dr Graeme Clark’s invention of the Cochlear Implant, or ‘bionic ear’ has since changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of adults and children who suffer from profound hearing loss. The device uses an external microphone to pick up sounds, which are then digitised and wirelessly transmitted to the electrode array implanted in the inner ear (the cochlear). The electrical signals from this array stimulate the inner ear, restoring hearing to the user.

Perhaps even more amazing is the miniaturisation of components in a Cochlear Implant. Below is a photo of an early prototype of the speech processing unit (the part that captures and digitises the sound), which was used to demonstrate the feasibility of the device and was a critical step in the development of this research. It is incredible to think that all of this now fits in the discreet final product. Importantly, the two-part design also allows the user to change out the external parts without surgically replacing the implanted device.

Prototype wearable speech processor
Prototype wearable speech processor, from which the Cochlear Implant was later developed (2011/10/2). Image: Marinco Kojdanovski, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Black Box Flight Recorder

The black box flight recorder is perhaps most famous because it is neither black nor box-shaped, but instead bright orange and shaped like an egg. Another life-changing invention that initially struggled to gain support in Australia, its inventor David Warren instead travelled to the UK to develop the idea.

The concept for the flight recorder came to Warren in 1953 while working with a team to investigate a series of recent airliner crashes. He realised that if a voice recorder could be designed to survive the impact of a crash, it would allow the last moments of the flight to be replayed. By hearing what was happening in the cockpit moments before disaster, it would help investigators to determine the cause of the crash and improve aircraft safety.

Now, of course, these flight recorders are legally required on every commercial aircraft, and have made air a much safer way to travel. And the name, if you’re wondering, comes from the generic term ‘black box’ which refers to any device where the input and output can be observed, but which doesn’t allow the inner workings to be understood: the flight recorder’s exterior gives no clues as to what its function is; this exterior is virtually indestructible though.

The black box flight recorder
The black box flight recorder which was invented by Australian scientist Dr David Warren and has dramatically improved safety in the airline industry (92/297). Image: Marinco Kojdanovski, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Miracle Mould

These samples of Penicillium notatum, often referred to as ‘miracle mould’, were grown in the laboratory by Sir Howard Florey and document one of the greatest ever advances in medical history. This type of mould exudes a sludge which was discovered to kill many kinds of dangerous bacteria and cure the infectious diseases that they cause. The extraction of the molecule Penicillin from the mould sludge gave us the world’s first widely available antibiotic and changed the course of medicine forever.

Australian-born Florey didn’t discover the mould or the substance it produces, but his lab in Oxford was a pioneer in interdisciplinary science, with teams of biologists, bacteriologists, biochemists, pathologists, physiologists and doctors all working together and sharing data. Florey was instrumental in developing these networks and identifying scientists with the required knowledge and expertise, without which the extraction of Penicillin would never have been possible. In 1945 Florey shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sir Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Alexander Fleming for his role in the discovery.

Preserved specimens of 'Penicillium notatum'
Preserved specimens of ‘Penicillium notatum’ (penicillin mould) from the laboratories of Sir Howard Florey. Image: Marinco Kojdanovski, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

All three of these objects are currently on display in Icons: From the MAAS Collection.

And remember, if you get the chance, there are a wealth of opportunities to get involved with science this week as part of the Sydney Science Festival.

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