Atoms, DNA and polysulfur nitride

When most people think of science in New Zealand they probably think biology and geology. Certainly it is difficult to escape our habitation in such a volatile locale, what with all our faultlines and geothermal activity. We are also renowned for our unique flora and fauna, and our groundbreaking conservation projects – both species survival and species eradication.

2011 marks the centenary of the publication of Ernest Lord Rutherford’s Nobel Prize-winning paper describing the discovery of the atomic nucleus. By coincidence, amongst other things, it is also the International Year of Chemistry.

We’re not exactly a nation known for our chemists, but beyond the natural environment, broadly speaking, chemistry is incredibly important to New Zealand as well. Just think where our horticultural and agricultural industries would be without fertilising and topdressing, not to mention the processing of these primary products into such essential things as wine, cheese, crackers, etc.

Equally, a number of New Zealander’s have been integral to some of the most significant chemistry discoveries of the last century. Our three Nobel Prize winners were all involved to some degree in chemistry, with two of them winning that particular Nobel Prize, and the other sharing one in medicine and physiology.

Though known as a physicist, Ernest Rutherford‘s work on the structure of atoms (the building blocks of all chemicals) straddled both chemistry and physics, opening up new areas of study leading all the way to the Large Hadron Collider. Alongside his Nobel Prize, he is also commemorated with the synthetic chemical element Rutherfordium (Rf) and his portrait on our $100 bill.

Rutherford monument in Brightwater

Rutherford monument in Brightwater

Maurice Wilkins was a biophysicist, an expert in X-ray crystallography, but his most renowned work was the complex co-operation/competition with Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, and Francis Crick in deciphering the chemical makeup and structure of DNA, thereby pioneering the discipline of biochemistry.

Wilkins monument in Pongaroa

Wilkins monument in Pongaroa

Our most recent Nobel Laureate, Alan MacDiarmid, was a plastics chemist. He was particularly interested in plastics which conducted electricity, principally sulfur nitride derivatives, inadvertently helping to create the field of nanotechnology.

Pleasingly, all three are celebrated at our universities with various buildings, memorials, and research institutions named in their honour. Another factor common amongst these men is that they all did their most important work overseas. Many others, though, have based themselves here, and among some of our lesser-known chemists are Theodor Rigg (fertilisers), James Maclaurin (food safety), Dave Lowe (greenhouse gases), Meto Leach (traditional medicines), Cornel de Ronde (recent re-discoverer of the Pink Terraces), and um … my dad (processes for production of electricity).

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