Story: Physics, chemistry and mathematics

Page 1. Physical sciences, 1760s to 1890s

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Creativity in science

Science is a creative pursuit driven by curiosity, a search for a better understanding of the world around us or a problem that needs solving. Scientists are creative when they form a hypothesis, connect disparate ideas to come to a new and original conclusion, or follow a hunch or a sense of intuition that leads to a new discovery.

The creativity of scientists can be as profound as physicist Ernest Rutherford’s radical thinking on the nature of matter or astronomer Beatrice Tinsley’s insights into the origins of the universe. It can be as practical as biophysicist Maurice Wilkins’s ingenuity in using a condom and a piece of plasticine to adapt the diffraction camera he was using to photograph DNA fibres.

The art of science

Ernest Rutherford commented, ‘I think a strong claim can be made that the process of scientific discovery may be regarded as a form of art. This is best seen in the theoretical aspects of Physical Science. The mathematical theorist builds up on certain assumptions and according to well understood logical rules, step by step, a stately edifice, while his imaginative power brings out clearly the hidden relations between its parts.’1

Early New Zealand scientists were less constrained by tradition and religion than their European peers, leading to a positive, freeing effect on science. With few libraries, limited laboratories and a government focus on applied sciences like agriculture and geology, research scientists in physics, chemistry and mathematics had few resources to work with. However, New Zealanders are well known for being resourceful. Ernest Rutherford, often quoted as saying, ‘We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think,’ was a great experimenter as well as a brilliant theoretical physicist.2 When Rutherford needed a particular piece of laboratory equipment, he would confidently make it himself.

Early New Zealand science

The first European scientists to visit New Zealand were naturalists such as Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander, Jules Dumont d’Urville and Ernst Dieffenbach. They concentrated on botany, zoology and geology, an emphasis that continued in the early days of Pākehā settlement. Amateur naturalists and a small number of professional geologists investigated the environment and resources of the new land.

In the 1860s a number of government institutions were established, providing a basis for systematic scientific research. These included the Geological Survey, Colonial Observatory, Colonial Museum and Colonial Laboratory, all based in Wellington under the direction of the geologist James Hector. In 1865 Hector appointed his former lab assistant, William Skey, as chemical analyst to the Geological Survey and Colonial Laboratory. Skey worked as an analyst until his death in 1900, focusing on answering chemical questions to assist agriculture and mining. Skey’s work did not involve developing advanced theories, but he was creative in devising analytical methods from limited resources.

The main centres of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin each had their own museum by 1880. Museums tended to concentrate on geology, biology and anthropology. Museum-based scientists seldom conducted original chemical, physical or mathematical work.

The analyst’s epitaph

Colonial Analyst William Skey composed his own epitaph:

Here lies one who’ll ne’er be missed
New Zealand’s primal analyst,
Of such enquiring turn of mind,
He wormed out all that he could find
Wormed nature’s little secrets out,
Then blabbed them queerly all about,
For this one day in angry pet,
Imperative she sued for debt,
So here by worms in turn he’s wormed,
To things more useful thus transformed.3

The New Zealand Institute

By the 1860s most provincial centres had scientific and philosophical societies, where amateur and professional scientists presented their work. In 1867 the societies were incorporated into a national body, the New Zealand Institute. This became the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1933. Researchers were able to publish their findings in the annual journal, Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. Early issues were dominated by biology and geology, with chemistry articles mostly straightforward reporting of simple chemical analyses.

One of the first physics articles was by a young Ernest Rutherford. In 1894 he reported on the results of his experiments on the magnetisation of iron by high-frequency discharges, completed while studying at Canterbury University College. Physics articles were published in the ‘miscellaneous’ section until 1897, when physics finally received its own dedicated section of the journal.

  1. Quoted in James W. McAllister, Beauty and revolution in science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996, p. 14. Back
  2. ‘Ernest Rutherford – Wikiquote,’ (last accessed 16 January 2014). Back
  3. Quoted in R. J, Wilcock, ‘Water chemistry.’ In Chemistry in a young country, edited by P. P. Williams. Christchurch: NZ Institute of Chemistry, 1981, p. 198. Back
How to cite this page:

Rebecca Priestley, 'Physics, chemistry and mathematics - Physical sciences, 1760s to 1890s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 June 2023)

Story by Rebecca Priestley, published 22 Oct 2014