We are all on an inescapable journey through the universe with our nearest star: our sun. If our kind manages to survive for hundreds or thousands of millions of years, we are in for one a hell of a ride.

On Thursday 25 August, join researcher in fundamental physics from the DAFNE collider in Frascati Italy, Dr Catalina Curceanu, on an imaginary journey through space and time: Riding on a star – this year’s Victorian Women in Physics lecture.

  • Discover how stars work
  • Find out what keeps stars alive and what happens when they die
  • See how a star can become an impressive supernova and give birth to a neutron star
  • Wonder the forces that bring about  black holes …
  • and ponder an important question for our distant descendants: How will our own meet its end?

The Victorian Women in Physics lecture celebrates the contribution of women to advances in physics; this year it is hosted by La Trobe Institute for Molecular Sciences.

For more information visit the Australian Institute of Physics.

Images (L-R): Portrait of a Woman by Edgar Degas (c). 1876–80 (left); a conventional X-ray of the painting;  false colour reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait, created from the X-ray fluorescence microscopy elemental maps produced at the Australian Synchrotron.

An alliance of Australian scientists and conservators have made a quantum leap forward in the analysis of priceless artworks, revealing an earlier painting of a different woman beneath a French Impressionist masterpiece in unprecedented detail, using a technology combination unavailable anywhere else in the world.

Shedding light on a decades-old riddle through a unique technology pipeline, researchers from Australian Synchrotron, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and CSIRO published stunning images of what lies beneath Edgar Degas’ Portrait of a Woman (c. 1876-1880) in the journal Scientific Reports overnight, midway through the artwork’s display at NGV International as part of Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition, Degas: A new vision.

Dr Daryl Howard, Scientist on the X-ray Fluorescence Microscopy (XFM) beamline at the Australian Synchrotron – the newest addition to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)’s world-class line-up of landmark research infrastructure – says the re-creation of the underpainting was achieved by first producing complex metal maps to highlight minerals in the many paint types.

‘Paint from Degas’ period was primarily composed of ground-up rocks and early synthetic pigments  – with copper creating green and mercury creating red, for example – and he swirled and mixed different paints from different tubes on his palette at different times, as did the restorers who touched up this painting into the early twentieth century.

‘Placing the artwork in the path of the Australian Synchrotron beam, which is a million times brighter than the sun, we measured the exact location of different pigment mixtures in every one millimetre square pixel, and fed the vast volumes of data into a computer to reconstruct both the surface and underlying layers.’

Dr Howard says the technique is an ‘order of magnitude’ improvement for non-intrusive art analysis, crucial when handling priceless artworks.

‘Eight years ago, a low resolution three-element image, which revealed a face beneath Vincent Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass 1887, inspired us to refine and advance non-destructive imaging using some of the world’s most advanced scientific technology.

‘This analysis takes this “hands-off” approach to the next level, producing enormous 31.6 megapixel images – beyond the resolution of most of today’s best digital cameras – while subjecting each part of the artwork to radiation for only a fraction of a second to ensure it is not damaged.’

CSIRO engineer Robin Kirkham says the powerful light of the Australian Synchrotron combined with a highly sensitive detector devised at CSIRO are behind the revolutionary new technique.

‘Developed by CSIRO with US project partner Brookhaven National Laboratory over the past few years, the Maia detector can complete complex elemental imaging a hundred times faster than conventional systems.

‘Coupled with the brilliant synchrotron beam, in 33 hours the detector produced images with around 250 times more pixel definition than the far smaller 2008 Van Gogh images that took about two days to produce.’

It’s not the first time the NGV, Australian Synchrotron and CSIRO have joined forces to solve an art mystery. In 2010 similar techniques were used to find a hidden Arthur Streeton self-portrait buried under layers of lead paint and, in 2015, a major project helped uncover hidden secrets in Frederick McCubbin’s The North wind.

Degas: a new vision is exhibiting at NGV until Sunday 18 September.

Media coverage


Dr Peter Kappen, Principal Scientist, X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy at the National Centre for Synchrotron Science, Australian Synchrotron

Dr Peter Kappen, Principal Scientist, X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (XAS) beamline at the Australian Synchrotron will be seconded to the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science over the winter, lending expertise to multi-disciplinary efforts to understand and keep track of innovation activity at a national level.

The Office of Innovation and Science Australia is leading the work that will bring together scientific experts from physics, chemistry and biology with legal and policy leaders to establish baseline activity and devise ongoing indicators to track performance over time, as part of its development of a 15 year strategic plan for the Australian innovation and science system.

Professor Andrew Peele, Director of the Australian Synchrotron, congratulated Dr Kappen on his appointment.

‘This appointment is an endorsement of Peter’s knowledge and abilities and he will add a strong voice to this national table of experts.’

Dr Kappen’s secondment – a role involving consultation with key players in the innovation system through one-on-one meetings with board members, roundtables and existing consultation forums – is due to commence in early June.