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Physics, chemistry and mathematics

by Rebecca Priestley

Nobel Prize-winning New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford saw scientific discovery as an art form. While New Zealand physicists, chemists and mathematicians have sometimes headed overseas for increased career opportunities, they have also achieved great feats of creativity and innovation, both at home and abroad.

Physical sciences, 1760s to 1890s

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.

    • Quoted in James W. McAllister, Beauty and revolution in science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996, p. 14. Back
    • ‘Ernest Rutherford – Wikiquote,’ (last accessed 16 January 2014). Back
    • 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

New Zealand research institutions, 1870s to 2000s

The development of a New Zealand university system from the 1870s allowed higher-level teaching of chemistry and mathematics. Despite this, it took almost a century for the universities to become major research centres. In the 20th century government and private institutions were set up as bases for scientific research into problems facing industry and agriculture.

University-based chemistry, physics and mathematics

The University of Otago, New Zealand’s first university, was founded in 1869 and opened in 1871. One of its three original professors was John Shand, who taught mathematics and natural philosophy (which included physics). Shand was soon joined by James Gow Black, New Zealand’s first professor of chemistry. Both Shand and Black concentrated on teaching, with little opportunity to carry out original research.

University of New Zealand Colleges were founded at Canterbury in 1873, Auckland in 1883 and Wellington (Victoria) in 1899. Each had lecturers teaching chemistry, physics and mathematics. Some teachers, such as the mathematicians William Aldis of Auckland and Richard Maclaurin of Victoria, were brilliant practitioners of their subjects. Lecturers were, however, allowed little time for research and few students were interested in postgraduate work.

Treacle-tin chemistry

Professor Thomas Easterfield, who taught chemistry and physics, described the early physics equipment at Victoria. ‘Most of the apparatus was home-made, treacle tins made excellent calorimeters and long stretched wires for quantitative experiments on linear expansion. There was no spectrometer, but with a small photographic replica of a Rowland’s grating, a telescope at the far end of the laboratory, and a carefully measured base line, the students obtained fair values for the wave length of sodium light.’1

University theoretical and research work

Alexander Bickerton, chemistry and physics professor at Canterbury, complained of the difficulty of getting students interested in research. The outstanding exception was his student Ernest Rutherford. Bickerton himself developed a theory that a range of astronomical phenomena, including the birth of stars, was created by the ‘partial impact’ of heavenly bodies. Bickerton continued to promote his theory long after its rejection by the broader scientific community.

Thomas Easterfield, foundation chemistry professor at Victoria, conducted a major study of the chemical properties of native plants. In 1919 Canterbury physics professor Coleridge Farr carried out economically significant research on the failure of porcelain electric insulators. Farr discovered the cause of the problems through experiments conducted in the corner of his physics lab, using a pot of dye and an old compressor. Despite these pioneering efforts, New Zealand universities only became major research centres in the 1960s, with increased emphasis on research-based postgraduate degrees.

Cawthron Institute

The Cawthron Institute, a private scientific research centre based in Nelson, was established in 1921 from the bequest of businessman Thomas Cawthron. The institute’s early focus on agricultural and horticultural problems meant that it employed several chemists, including the first director, Thomas Easterfield, formerly of Victoria University College. The Cawthron researchers concentrated on devising solutions to practical problems, rather than developing abstract scientific theories.

Chance favours the prepared mind

The cause of the sheep disease facial eczema was unknown in the 1950s. In 1958 J. C. Percival, a technician at the Animal Research Station at Ruakura, was mowing the lawns at the Claudelands showground when he noticed a black deposit on the mower blades. Chemical analysis proved this to be a fungus, now called Pithomyces chartarum, which produced the toxin responsible for facial eczema.


The government established the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in 1926 to co-ordinate scientific research beneficial to the New Zealand economy. Ernest Marsden, an English physicist and one of Rutherford’s students, was appointed to head the DSIR. The department employed a number of chemists, mostly working on agricultural issues. In 1939 the Department of Agriculture also set up its own Animal Research Division, which employed several chemists.

The role of DSIR physicists gained more attention during the Second World War. Physicists developed New Zealand’s own radar programme, including methods of mounting mobile radar stations on trucks. Eight DSIR physicists and engineers went to the US and Canada to work on the development of the atomic bomb and atomic energy.

The DSIR’s work in chemistry and physics had a very practical focus, but sometimes led to wide-ranging discoveries. For example, in 1954–55 Athol Rafter and Gordon Fergusson carried out studies on atmospheric carbon-14. They concluded that carbon-14 levels were increasing due to large-scale atmospheric nuclear bomb tests. Rafter’s work was also important in refining radiocarbon dating techniques.

In 1992 the DSIR was disestablished, with a range of Crown research institutes (CRIs) set up in its place. The CRIs carry out applied science, answering specific environmental and economic questions. Like their earlier counterparts at the DSIR, CRI scientists have generally worked on direct problem-solving rather than broader theoretical work.

    • Quoted in J. C. Beaglehole, Victoria University College: an essay towards a history. Wellington: New Zealand University Press, 1949, p. 48. Back

New Zealand physicists overseas

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.


New Zealand mathematicians and chemists overseas

Chemists and mathematicians from New Zealand, like their colleagues in physics, often found that moving overseas greatly enhanced their ability to carry out creative research work. The universities and research centres in countries such as Britain and the US gave more scope for theoretical work, while their chemistry laboratories were often far better equipped than their New Zealand equivalents.

The music of maths

Mathematician Alexander Aitken was also an accomplished musician. He once explained his approach to solving mathematical problems as dividing numbers into sets of five and then applying German waltz time to them.


Alexander Aitken

Alexander Aitken, a mathematician from Otago, was renowned as one of the greatest of his era. Aitken had a traumatic time in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force during the First World War, fighting at Gallipoli and in the battle of the Somme. He then taught at the University of Edinburgh for most of his career. Aitken was a master of mental arithmetic, specialising in performing difficult calculations without even the use of pencil and paper.

Solving the impossible

Roy Kerr commented on the ‘Kerr solution’: ‘I solved Einstein’s equations and found this rotating black hole solution and quite a lot of other stuff as well … It had actually been proven that what I was doing was impossible just a few months before.’1

Roy Kerr

Roy Kerr, originally from Canterbury, spent many years based at Cambridge University, England, and then the University of Texas at Austin. He finally returned to New Zealand in 1971. In 1963 Kerr was the first to find a set of solutions to Einstein’s equations of general relativity. Through this Kerr described the astronomical phenomena of rotating black holes. His calculations had earlier become stuck after he tried various novel mathematical approaches to the problem. Kerr then read a paper by physicist Ezra ‘Teddy’ Newman, arguing that the solution Kerr was seeking could not exist. Kerr came to the opposite conclusion from reading the paper, got back to work and in a few weeks produced the ‘Kerr solution’.

Vaughan Jones

Mathematician Vaughan Jones, born in Gisborne, solved an important mathematical problem in a fever of late-night inspiration. Jones, who studied in New Zealand and Switzerland, established a career in algebra, topology and mathematical physics in the United States. He came up with a formula now known as the Jones Polynomial. The formula allows a user to tell whether or not two knots are different, and can sometimes be used to deduce that two knots are the same. Jones had been working on a related problem for years, then one night, he said, ‘everything crystallised. I sat up in the middle of the night, ran downstairs, did a few calculations and it seemed to work. This was one of those rare occasions where it was still true the next morning.’2 Jones’s formula won him the Fields Medal – the top mathematics prize for a researcher under 40 – in 1990.


Joseph Mellor

Joseph Mellor, a chemist who trained at Otago University, was later based in Staffordshire, the heart of the English pottery industry. Mellor’s experimental work in the early 20th century transformed the production of ceramics in Britain.

Richard Barrer

Richard Maling Barrer, originally from the Wairarapa, is regarded as the founding father of the study of zeolites, porous aluminosilicate crystals with a wide range of industrial uses. Based at Cambridge, England, and then at the University of London. Barrer worked on zeolites from the late 1930s until his death in 1996, discovering many of their properties. In 1948 he was the first to make synthetic zeolites not seen in nature. Barrer attributed his passion for zeolites to inspiration from James McBain’s book Sorption of gases by solids.

    • Quoted in Veronika Meduna and Rebecca Priestley, Atoms, dinosaurs & DNA: 68 great New Zealand scientists. Auckland: Random House, 2008, p. 93. Back
    • Interview with Vaughan Jones, 10 December 2012. Back

Scientists as designers and creators

Physical scientists can also be designers, piecing together atoms, molecules or different elements to create new forms. These may meet a functional need or may have new functions yet to be imagined.

MacDiarmid and conducting plastics

Alan MacDiarmid shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000 with Alan Heeger and Hideki Shirakawa for their discovery that plastics could conduct electricity. Serendipity, along with MacDiarmid’s lifelong fascination with colour, played a role in their success. MacDiarmid studied the bright orange crystals of sulfur nitride for his MSc thesis at Victoria University of Wellington in the 1950s. Years later, at the chemistry department of the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, he worked on a newly discovered golden-coloured material called polysulfur nitride that was known to conduct electricity.

While on a 1975 visit to Japan, Macdiarmid was shown a silver-coloured polyacetylene by Hideki Shirakawa. Shirakawa explained that the polyacetylene was the result of a misunderstanding by a newly arrived foreign student, still struggling with the Japanese language. The student had made the catalyst for a planned experiment 1,000 times stronger than instructed and, rather than acting as a catalyst, the reagent had created a new product with conductive properties. MacDiarmid recalled that adding bromine to polysulfur nitride increased its conductivity. He added bromine to the polyacetylene and found its conductivity increased millions of times.

Nanotechnology and ‘molecular chefs’

In the 2010s at Wellington-based Boutiq Nanoparticle Solutions, chemist Richard Tilley designed nanoparticles of all sorts of sizes, shapes and surface textures, using materials like gold, palladium and nickel. These unique particles are used around the world, including by scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Margaret Brimble was a distinguished professor of chemistry at the University of Auckland who won the 2012 Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s highest science honour. She considered chemistry a very creative field, sometimes referring to herself as a ‘molecular master chef’. 1 Her work designing and making molecules with therapeutic properties demanded not just patience and persistence but a lot of imagination.

Angelic collaboration

In 2005 a project called Are angels OK? teamed up leading New Zealand writers – poets, fiction writers and a comic artist – with physicists. Led by poet Bill Manhire and physicist Paul Callaghan, the initiative resulted in a series of public performances, radio shows and a book. The writers were inspired by conversations with the physicists to explore topics such as dark energy, the curvature of space-time and wave particle duality, while one physicist tried his hand at poetry.

Paul Callaghan and scientific creativity

Physicist Paul Callaghan wanted to go to Antarctica, so he designed a device to measure brine content in sea ice. In 1994 he got funding to take it to the frozen continent. The portable nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) device he used turned out to have far wider applications. Callaghan, seeing the potential of the new technology, founded the company Magritek. In the 2010s the company manufactured portable NMR and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) devices for the oil and gas industry and for research and educational institutes around the world.

While working at Victoria University of Wellington, where he founded the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, Callaghan became a passionate advocate for creativity in science and for fostering connections between science, the arts and business.

Cultural contrast

Māori ethnobotanist and natural-products chemist Meto Leach pondered, ‘Mātauranga Māori is founded on Te Ao Māori or Māori world view and as such is steeped in culture and spirituality. Compare this to Western science – a discipline based on formulation, empirical testing and challenging of theories. Where then do these seemingly contrasting world views find common ground?’2

Māori science

In New Zealand, Māori knowledge and western science have sometimes come together to produce new and innovative ideas or products. In 2000 Victoria University design student Christall Rata – who had a strong science background – developed and patented a chemical process to make hapene, a net-like textile product, from harakeke or New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax). Pauline Harris combined research in astrophysics with Māori astronomical star lore. She hoped to revitalise the study of Māori traditional knowledge and inspire future generations to work in this area.


New Zealand science strengths and challenges

In the 21st century science in New Zealand has been successful in a range of fields. At the same time it continues to face some serious challenges.

Strengths of New Zealand science

New Zealand science has been strong in the areas of agriculture, health research and earth science, areas that all involve aspects of chemistry, physics and mathematics.

New Zealand physical science has made important contributions in other fields.

  • Nanotechnology (the engineering of systems at a molecular level). New Zealand is a leader in nanotechnology through work at the MacDiarmid Institute, the industrial materials research centres at the University of Auckland and the Biopolymer Network (a joint venture between three Crown research institutes).
  • Ceramics. A group at the MacDiarmid Institute, led by ceramics chemist Ken MacKenzie, developed a wide range of new ceramic materials. These were used in a variety of fields, including electronics, medicine, engineering and pollution control. Andy Edgar of Victoria University of Wellington headed a group investigating the use of glass, crystal and ceramic combinations in high-tech optics.
  • Superconductors (materials that operate at very low temperatures, transferring electricity with no resistance and no electricity loss). Physicists Jeff Tallon, Grant Williams and Alan Kaiser were among the New Zealand scientists who played significant roles in superconductor research.
  • Radiocarbon dating. In the 1950s nuclear chemist Athol Rafter, working at the DSIR, perfected more reliable methods of radiocarbon dating. In the 1990s Rodger Sparks of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) built one of the world’s first accelerator mass spectrometry systems (AMS) out of an old Van de Graaf particle accelerator. The AMS system greatly increased the sensitivity of carbon dating techniques.
  • Applied mathematics. New Zealand mathematicians such as Graeme Wake, Mike Steel and Charles Semple advanced the use of mathematical systems in solving biological problems, particularly in evolutionary genetics. Robert McLachlan of Massey University was a world leader in geometric integration, a set of mathematical methods that simulate the motion of large systems.
  • Theoretical physics. A team of physicists at the University of Canterbury were involved in the investigation of the astrophysical concepts of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’. These concepts arose from theories developed to explain the rate of expansion of the universe.

Jeff Tallon and his paper bag

In 1988 Jeff Tallon and his colleagues found a ceramic compound that would superconduct electricity at -163°C. Tallon had sketched out his ideas for the compound on the back of a paper bag, during morning tea in the DSIR cafeteria. He kept the bag and was eventually able to file a patent for the new compound.

Issues for New Zealand science

New Zealand science faced a range of problems in the early 21st century.

The relatively small scale and limited funding of New Zealand science meant that many of the country’s most talented scientists were still drawn to work abroad. The fact that many of the companies operating in New Zealand carried out most of their research in overseas laboratories reinforced this situation.

There was concern that scientific knowledge and innovations were often not adopted by wider New Zealand society. In response there were calls for more emphasis on science education and on communication of science to the general public.

More Māori and Pacific Island people were becoming involved in science, but they were still under-represented, especially in the physical sciences. Initiatives to encourage Māori engagement with science included establishing Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, the Māori Centre of Research Excellence, based at the University of Auckland, and the Māori Research Institute at Rotorua.

By the 2010s it was acknowledged that the competitive system of science funding adopted in the 1990s had led to a lack of co-operation between research institutions. The 2013 report of the government’s National Science Challenges Panel called for greater co-ordination between institutions, more collaboration by scientists from different disciplines and a more strategic approach to science problems.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Rebecca Priestley, 'Physics, chemistry and mathematics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 August 2019)

Story by Rebecca Priestley, published 22 Oct 2014