Story: Physics, chemistry and mathematics

Page 3. New Zealand physicists overseas

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The expatriate effect

In the 19th and early 20th centuries New Zealand provided few opportunities for talented science students to advance their research careers. There were few science jobs available and those that did exist were generally practical work assisting agriculture and industry. Postgraduate research was also limited. The University of New Zealand, after a false start in the 1920s, finally established research-based doctorates in 1947, but they were not commonplace until the 1960s.

For the majority of New Zealand’s high-quality researchers in chemistry, physics and mathematics, the best chance to continue their education and research careers was to go abroad. Such a move often provided greater opportunities for advanced theoretical work, allowing a more creative approach to science. Institutions in countries such as Britain and the US were better resourced with larger communities of researchers.

Nobel Prize winners

Ernest Rutherford received the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry ‘for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances’.1 Maurice Wilkins (with James Watson and Francis Crick) won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine ‘for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material’.2 Alan MacDiarmid (with Alan Heeger and Hideki Shirakawa) received the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry ‘for the discovery and development of conductive polymers’.3

Some expatriate scientists, such as mathematician Roy Kerr, returned home after high achievements overseas. There were also a number of immigrant scientists, like the English physicist Ernest Marsden, who chose New Zealand as a place to work. Nevertheless, while the later 20th century saw many more research opportunities opening up in New Zealand, there remained a strong pull for talented scientists to head overseas.

Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford, the atomic physicist, left New Zealand in 1895 to study at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England. He later worked at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and then at Manchester University, before taking up the position of director of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1919. He was a great experimenter and theorist, and made many discoveries in atomic physics.

Rutherford carried out his ‘gold foil experiment’ while at the University of Manchester in 1909. It provides a fine example of creative experimentation and theoretical thinking combining to produce a new way of looking at the world. Acting on a hunch, he suggested that Ernest Marsden, his student, and Hans Geiger, his laboratory assistant, set up an experiment in which they fired alpha particles at a thin gold foil. When some of the alpha particles were deflected Rutherford described it as ‘almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you’.4

Use your imagination

Ernest Rutherford noted, ‘Experiment without imagination, or imagination without recourse to experiment, can accomplish little, but, for effective progress, a happy blend of these two powers is necessary. The unknown appears as a dense mist before the eyes of men. In penetrating this obscurity we cannot invoke the aid of supermen, but much depends on the combined efforts of a number of adequately trained ordinary men of scientific imagination.’5

It took painstaking experimental work by Marsden and Geiger to collect sufficient evidence to convince Rutherford that the atom was mostly empty space. He pictured a small central nucleus surrounded by a sea of tiny orbiting electrons. This radical idea was in stark contrast to the reigning ‘plum pudding’ model of the atom, changing forever our understanding of the building blocks of matter.

Explorers of inner and outer space

Maurice Wilkins

Biophysicist Maurice Wilkins was born in New Zealand, but studied and worked in the UK. He had an intuition that the arrangement of molecules in DNA fibres might form a regular pattern. Wilkins and physical chemist Rosalind Franklin were both examining DNA using X-ray diffraction. Their results contributed to James Watson and Francis Crick’s double helix model of the DNA molecule, which won Crick, Watson and Wilkins the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Beatrice Tinsley

While working as a professor of physics at Yale University, New Zealander Beatrice Tinsley pioneered a new field of astronomy by describing the chemical evolution of galaxies. She showed that, rather than being constant, the chemical composition of galaxies changed over time.

William Pickering

William Pickering, born in Wellington and raised in the Marlborough Sounds, achieved fame as a rocket engineer on the NASA space programme. For most of his career he was based at the CalTech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California.

Ian Axford

Ian Axford was a physicist who carried out pioneering work on the parts of the Earth’s atmosphere known as the magnetosphere and the heliosphere. He worked at the University of San Diego, California (1967–74), then headed the Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy at Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany (1974–2001). Axford also spent two extended periods working back in New Zealand, from 1982 to 1985 and 1992 to 1995.

  1. ‘The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1908.’ (last accessed 17 January 2014). Back
  2. ‘The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962.’ (last accessed 17 January 2014). Back
  3. ‘The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2000.’ (last accessed 17 January 2014). Back
  4. Ernest Rutherford, ‘The development of the theory of atomic structure.’ In Background to modern science, edited by Joseph Needham and Walter Pagel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938, p. 68. Back
  5. Quoted in John Campbell, Rutherford: scientist supreme. Christchurch: AAS Publications, 1999, p. 379. Back
How to cite this page:

Rebecca Priestley, 'Physics, chemistry and mathematics - New Zealand physicists overseas', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 10 June 2023)

Story by Rebecca Priestley, published 22 Oct 2014