A lone rower sculls across the placid surface of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin, the passage of his craft marked by the ripples and eddies stirred by the vessel and the rhythmic lapping of the oars. Emeritus Professor Barry Ninham AO is taking his regular morning exercise: it suits him well as someone who in his youth narrowly missed out on representing Australia as an Olympic rower.

And he likes to make waves – both in the water and in his work.

Ninham is one of Australia’s outstanding scientists and a world leader in his field. At the age of 80 he is still actively engaged in research, working in areas that include colloid and surface chemistry, physical and inorganic chemistry, statistical mechanics, number theory in physics, and asymptotic analysis.

The Australian Academy of Science recently awarded him the Matthew Flinders Medal and Lecture, one of Australia’s top honours presented every two years to the “most influential and inspiring scientists” working in the physical sciences.

His 55-year career has been marked by outstanding achievement but his most recent is perhaps one of the most remarkable.

It relates to his work in colloid and surface science, specifically the world of bubbles, or “bubble-bubble interactions” – the very bubbles you in a swirling stream, the breaking surf, or those created by a rower’s oar.

Ninham and fellow scientist Professor Ric Pashley discovered that by heating the air around a body of water, the water itself does not heat but instead the surface area of the bubbles does.

So what?

Well, if you continue to heat the bubbles it has a profound effect on the surrounding water – the process wipes out bugs, eliminates other pollutants, and desalinates water.

“If a virus comes into contact with the surface of a hot bubble, the virus is killed,” he says.

Out of this discovery Ninham and Pashley have created a technology that can be used for desalination, cleaning recycled water and removing toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead. It is, he says, much cheaper and more energy efficient than present methods.

“It is easier to heat bubbles because heating water takes a lot more energy and is very expensive.”

They are now in the process of taking the technology to market.

What is also remarkable about their discovery is that it flies in the face of current scientific thinking, which Ninham says is shaped by computer modelling:

“The problem with people relying on computers is that it stops them from thinking.”

Ninham, a theoretician in theories of physical chemistry and in self-assembly in biology, believes the widespread use of computer modelling in the sciences is a massive problem, one that has created a “false consciousness” among practitioners that leads to skewed results.

Scientists, he says, need to get back to the basics of research including a deep knowledge of theory and mathematics.

“I have been fortunate because I started in maths and physics and moved into chemistry and towards biology. But if you don’t have that mathematical background it’s very difficult to comprehend that the computer you are using is not God-given and is not going to print out the right answers.

“They sell these computer programs now at vast expense to biologists around the world with, say, 60,000 molecular parameters and they simulate proteins and so on, and it’s complete nonsense.

“A simulation is not reality. Nothing beats a real experiment with real things.”

Ninham, one of a family of seven, hails from Western Australia and was educated at Guildford Grammar School, St Georges College and the University of Western Australia. It was not, however, all plain sailing. The “backwoods” suburb where he lived as a child had no libraries, no ready access to books and was, he says, “the end of the earth”.

His father worked as a ship builder during World War II and had gained a technical qualification in chemistry. One of his books was called Teach Yourself Calculus, which the young Ninham picked up at the age of 11.

“I gobbled it up. I found I was good at it.”

He flourished in maths and science and after graduating from UWA he went to the US to undertake a PhD in Mathematical Physics/Statistical Mechanics at the University of Maryland, which he completed in 1962. His supervisor was the renowned scientist and mathematician, Elliot Montroll.

“In those days America was very enlightened. I was part of a lab of 10 graduate students from every country in the world,” he recalls. As part of his research he examined plasma physics in White Dwarf stars and worked in the laboratories of several leading private companies.

“Companies were very liberated then. They paid their scientists to do exactly what they pleased – Bell Labs, IBM all of them – it was a completely different world. But the companies mostly did benefit from the research.”

Returning to Australia, Ninham moved to the ANU where he founded the university’s Department of Applied Mathematics in 1970 and later was founder of its Department of Optical Sciences.

More than 75 of the students and research fellows he mentored have become full professors in Australia and overseas, some 10 of those becoming Fellows of the Australian Academy of Sciences, and five Fellows of the Royal Society. He has also supervised around 150 PhD theses in Australia and overseas.

The ANU established the Barry Ninham Chair in Natural Sciences in 2008 in recognition of his contributions to science. He shares the distinction of a named Chair with historian Manning Clark.

Ninham is concerned about the future of science and believes we may be entering what he calls the Age of Unreason.

He acknowledges that computers have changed the world for good in many ways, but maintains “they have been a disaster for science”.

“We had the Age of Faith, the Age of Enlightenment and now we’ve got the Age of Unreason, and that’s because of computers which have substituted thought for automatic programs.

“People buy machines and the program that comes with them, but the program is completely irrelevant – and instead of doing their own thinking they rely on the computer to give them results. It’s a big problem for science.”

As an example he points to the science of soft self-assembled matter such as lipids that form cell membranes in mixtures of water and oil.

“The whole area has been deviled for years because [researchers] have the idea, the conceptual lock, that these things form spheres or cylinders or planes or reverse cylinders.

“In fact the real language of nature involves non-Euclidean geometries but because of computer programs this gets interpreted in terms of spheres and cylinders. But that has nothing to do with the real structure, which is bio-continuous. It’s a real inhibition to progress.”

Another issue, perhaps even more serious, is “the startling realisation” that all the theories in the enabling discipline of physical chemistry – which underlies all of chemical engineering and biology – “is fundamentally flawed and has to be reworked to become as effective as it should be”.

Ninham says a major problem in higher education research today is that much of research is driven by fashion.

“There’s money in what’s fashionable,” he says. “And there’s a huge drive to do applied work and commercialisation. It’s all bureaucracy driven.”

He says the system is also “hugely inhibiting to people who want to take up science and engineering”.

“It’s very hard for young people to get up because of short-term contracts, no tenure track, lack of opportunities and very few jobs. All the jobs at the moment are in content-free disciplines like economics so it’s a big inhibition to people doing science.

“I’ve lived through the good times and I’ve been extremely lucky.”

Ninham’s advice to graduates who want to embark on a research degree is to decide not where to study – but who with. Find the best supervisor in the field.

“Once you have made that choice you are up and running. It’s the first step but the most crucial one.”

Ninham is less than impressed by modern higher education leadership.

“I have had 55 years in universities and one thing you notice with vice-chancellors is that there is a progression: each time a new one comes along you think ‘well [he or she] couldn’t possibly be worse than the previous one’ – but it turns out that they are.”

In fact, he has come up with ‘Ninham’s Law of Vice-Chancellors’ which says “they are only going to get worse – and there’s a correlation between the worseness of vice-chancellors and the increasing size of their salaries”.

Ninham is scathing of the Government’s Innovation Agenda.

“It’s another false paradigm,” he says.

“The way to do innovation is to keep the bureaucrats out of it. You just let people get on with the job and I believe if you do fundamental research then innovation will come out of it.

“You don’t do things by having a business plan and going from A to B. You start with the idea A and it might go to B but you end up going to G. If you can predict the answer and know where you are going it’s not science.”