Aussie scientist earned millions from Wi-Fi

BY DAVID SYGALL
Last updated 05:00 09/12/2009

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In 1974 the British physicist Stephen Hawking theorised that black holes were not always black. As they became extremely hot and shrunk they could blow up and hurl radio pulses through space.

If we could interpret those pulses, Hawking suggested, we could unlock some of the questions around one of the universe's most mysterious phenomena.

Not long afterwards, a young Sydney University PhD graduate in engineering and physics was working in the Netherlands.

John O'Sullivan and some colleagues were fascinated by Hawking's theory and set out to measure the pulses emanating from exploding black holes. However, the equipment they were using made the task too complex. O'Sullivan wondered if the measurements could be done differently.

"The black holes we're talking about might weigh as much as Everest but are the size of an atomic particle," he says. "They finally explode but as the radio wave travels towards us through space it gets distorted. We needed to find a way to either detect the smeared signal or unsmear it all together."

The answer lay in a set of mathematical equations called Fourier transforms, which O'Sullivan adapted to radio astronomy and optics to cut through atmospheric distortion and enable sharp images.

O'Sullivan was rightfully proud of this development and, though he never quite got around to detecting exploding black holes, within a few years he and colleagues Graham Daniels, John Deane, Diethelm Ostry and Terry Percival adapted the work to a different form of communication - one much closer to home and one most of us take for granted.

The innovation now used in a billion devices everyday, has earned the Australian science community hundreds of millions of dollars and recently netted O'Sullivan the nation's top science award, the Prime Minister's Prize for Science.

"By the late 1980s, we started looking at the growth of computer networking," he says. "It was several years before the worldwide web, there was just email and specialised computer services. But I started thinking that if you could just cut the wires and have portable computing, able to access networks at full data rates, there would be huge potential."

It took a decade of "maintaining the rage" of research and development before O'Sullivan's hunch could be vindicated.

"We realised this was going to be big," he says. "But I don't think any of us realised how big."

The problem O'Sullivan and his colleagues faced was that in offices, cafes, lecture theatres - anywhere portable computing was desirable - reverberation from waves bouncing off objects would cause unclear reception. And the solution they sought had to be cheap and small enough to fit into a laptop.

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O'Sullivan knew the answer lay in his earlier work with Fourier transforms. He began the task of building the equations into a tiny chip that could split signals into various tones and reassemble them quickly.

"Rather than send a signal at one high-speed data stream, we'd do it in parallel, like a motorway, sending 100 messages at a million flashes per second," he explains.

"This side-stepped reverberation. There was a lot more work to do. But that was the basis of fixing the problem."

By 1992 more puzzle pieces had fallen into place and testing soon began on sending and receiving computer signals over the air. The CSIRO and another organisation, Radiata, put together a demonstration and, in 2000, Radiata had the first working chips. The wireless local area network internet connection was born. O'Sullivan and his team were not the only ones seeking this breakthrough. But they were the quickest and the best.

O'Sullivan's extraordinary discovery was the product of a fortuitous series of events that drew him to science. His parents, Patrick and Valerie, were not university educated but encouraged O'Sullivan and his brother Peter to study.

"It was a time when education was seen as a way to prosperity and my parents wanted us to get ahead," he says.

As a child, O'Sullivan had been interested in mechanics. He was never afraid to pull things apart and reassemble them. He enjoyed science magazines and loved the space books his mother would bring home from the library. He later became curious about electronics but it wasn't until late in high school, in 1964, that O'Sullivan knew what he wanted to do.

"We went on a school visit to Sydney University and I saw an experiment that captured my interest," he recalls. "It was a simple experiment of a rotating disc with a magnet across it generating electricity. I couldn't understand how electricity could be created like that and I found it an interesting puzzle to think about."

He had a good physics teacher at the time who kindled his enthusiasm, despite confessing to the boy's parents that he was only a textbook page or two ahead of the students.

At university, O'Sullivan undertook a degree in engineering and physics, an unusual combination that proved crucial to his groundbreaking later work. During his final year, he had a practical placement with CSIRO and spent time at the Parkes Observatory, another important happening, as it sparked his interest in radio astronomy. He won the university medal in electrical engineering and completed a PhD thesis in radio astronomy.

"And from that point on," he says, "my direction was set."

Soon after university, O'Sullivan left with his wife Alison, an English teacher, to take up a post with ASTRON, the Netherlands Foundation for Radio Astronomy and, among many areas of research, began the experiments with black holes. He returned to Australia nine years later with two kids, Philip, who now works on operating systems software for smart phones, and Jane, who edits an art magazine. His brother Peter did a PhD later in life and now works in mathematics at Sydney University.

"They are all very proud of me," the 62-year-old says. "They were all there when I received the Prime Minister's prize.

"I'm proud of the small group of us who came up with the basic ideas and that we could see the potential so early on. And I'm proud to have been part of the team that produced the first working chips."

However, O'Sullivan's greatest satisfaction is that his work has earned a lot of money that is now being pumped back into Australian research and development. In 1992, CSIRO acquired an Australian patent for the wireless technology. A US patent came in 1996. Subsequent settlements, including with Microsoft, have so far reaped $205million. More is expected.

"The revenue is now the basis of a $150million CSIRO endowment fund for future research," O'Sullivan says proudly.

"It won't be me making the breakthroughs of the future, it will be the next generation. And it's very gratifying to know that what we started off a long time ago could lead to the next big discovery by an Australian scientist."

O'Sullivan, too, has benefited from his work. He received a bonus from CSIRO and $300,000 for the Prime Minister's Science Prize, part of which he has promised to contribute to the endowment fund.

O'Sullivan's work is hardly done. He is now working with a new team on image feeds for the next generation radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, a hugely ambitious project that will link thousands of radio telescopes and aim to provide a deeper than ever view of the universe, possibly back to the beginning of time.

"For me, it's about doing something challenging and working with young people," he says. "This project is exciting. It hasn't been done before, it's tricky and it's fun. And, maybe we'll even finally find those exploding black holes."

- Sydney Morning Herald

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