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Quantum Physicist Named 'Australian of the Year'

Michelle Yvonne Simmons, "Australian of the Year 2018," is seen at the 2018 Australian of the Year Awards at Parliament House in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia, on Jan. 25. (Image credit: Mick Tsikas/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Chalk one up for the physicists, as 2018's "Australian of the Year" title goes to a quantum physicist whose work contributed to the creation of the world's thinnest wire and the first transistor made from a single atom.

Michelle Yvonne Simmons, a professor of quantum physics in the Faculty of Science at the University of New South Wales, received the honor today (Jan. 25) from the National Australia Day Council (NADC) at an annual award ceremony in Canberra's Parliament House, Australian news agency SBS reported.

Simmons, who relocated to Australia from the U.K. in 1999, is at the forefront of research that is transforming how computers work, with the goal of building computers capable of tackling problems that currently require thousands of years of computing time to solve, and producing results in minutes, NADC representatives reported in a statement. [How Fast Can Quantum Computers Get?]

The awards, which date back to the 1960s, "honor an exceptional group of highly-respected Australians who ignite discussion and change on issues of national importance," according to the NADC website.

Three other Australians garnered recognition and titles at the event: "Young Australian of the Year" went to 24-year-old soccer player Samantha Kerr; "Australia's Local Hero" was awarded to mathematics teacher Eddie Woo; and the "Senior Australian of the Year" went to another scientist — biophysicist Graham Farquhar, a professor at Australian National University.

At the ceremony, Danielle Roche, chair of the NADC, praised the winners, calling the group "inspirational Australians" who "are breaking down barriers, forging new futures, looking at old problems in different ways and creating new pathways."

Contenders for the four titles are nominated by committees that represent each of Australia's 32 states and territories; every committee then submits the name of a single finalist, and the winners are announced at the award ceremony on Australia Day Eve — the day before the country's official national day, Australia Day — according to the statement.

In her acceptance speech, Simmons noted that Australian scientists have "unique advantages" on the world stage, as they are able to form collaborative international partnerships but can also perform competitively, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported.

"Our distaste for authority means we think for ourselves," Simmons said. "Best of all, we are prepared to give those hard challenges a go," she added.

Simmons also acknowledged the difficulties and discouragements that are often faced by women in the sciences, observing that women's abilities and talents are frequently underestimated, Simmons said in her speech.

"I think one of the important things — and the message I hope to get out there — is to defy those expectations," she said.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Mindy Weisberger is a senior writer for Live Science covering general science topics, especially those relating to brains, bodies, and behaviors in humans and other animals — living and extinct. Mindy studied filmmaking at Columbia University; her videos about dinosaurs, biodiversity, human origins, evolution, and astrophysics appear in the American Museum of Natural History, on YouTube, and in museums and science centers worldwide. Follow Mindy on Twitter.