Science Digest: January – February 1996

Bruce Farr receives S&T medal

United States-based New Zealand yacht designer Bruce Farr recently received a prestigious New Zealand Science and Technology Medal in Washington DC. He was presented with the medal by New Zealand Ambassador to the United States, John Wood, on behalf of The Royal Society of New Zealand. The award was made to acknowledge Bruce Farr’s ‘significant contribution to racing yacht design and for the impetus given to the development of this technology in New Zealand”. He has long been at the forefront of world yachting’s design technology revolution. State-of-the-art racing machines from the Farr drawing board include KZ7–the ‘plastic-fantastic” inaugural New Zealand challenger for the America’s Cup in Fremantle in the early 1980s–and, more recently, the maxi-yacht Sayonara which took line honours in last year’s Sydney to Hobart race. Sir Robin Irvine represented the Royal Society and addressed the gathering of over 100 guests.

Technology now part of science fair name

The National Science Fair is to change its name and be held later in the year. The 1996 fair, which as usual brings together the best of exhibits from regional fairs, is to be called the ECNZ National Science and Technology Fair. It will be held in early December in Christchurch. Richard Meylan, the Royal Society’s Science Fair Manager, said that the Society had decided to hold the national fair later in the year to give regions greater flexibility for timing of their own fairs, and to allow students to use investigations they may have carried out at school during the year. He said the introduction of technology into the name would celebrate the innovation of technologists as well as the research capabilities of scientists. It would also reflect the introduction of the new technology curriculum into schools.

Meat and health symposium

A two-day symposium on Meat and Human Health is to be held by the Royal Society in Wellington on May 29-30 at the Portland Towers, Hawkestone Street, Thorndon, Wellington. The symposium will examine the latest research on meat consumption and the positive or negative effects on human health. The aim of the symposium is to establish a new platform for further research and development in this area. For further information contact the Society.

Powerful computer for Auckland

A supercomputer, thought to be 10 times bigger than any other in New Zealand, is to be commissioned by the University of Auckland in May. The Silicon Graphics Power Challenge computer is about half way up the ratings’ list of the world’s top 500 supercomputers. The computer cost less than $2 million and is about the size of two large fridges. Associate Professor Peter Hunter from the university’s Department of Engineering Science says the computer is expected to provide significant benefits for New Zealand research. It will be able to process billions of computations per second and help scientific researchers who had been held back by the lack of access to high computational performance.

Ferrets and Tb workshop

A workshop on Ferrets as Vectors of Tuberculosis and Threats to Conservation is to be held by the Possum and Bovine Tuberculosis Control National Science Strategy Committee on 27-28 March at Haldon Station near Fairlie, South Canterbury. A key objective of the workshop is to identify research objectives. For further information contact the Royal Society.

New Year’s Honours

Botanist and botanical artist Nancy Adams was awarded a CBE. Before her retirement in 1987, she was assistant curator of botany and curator of algae at the National Museum. In 1995 she won a New Zealand Book Award for Seaweeds of New Zealand which she both wrote and illustrated. This is the first in-depth study of red, green and brown seaweeds to be published in New Zealand. She has co-authored nearly 40 other books.

Emeritus Professor Bruce Biggs FRSNZ, of Auckland, has been awarded an OBE for services to education and the Māori people. Professor Biggs spent 35 years teaching Māori language at the University of Auckland. He was the first lecturer of Māori at a New Zealand university and developed the Department of Māori Studies at the university. He was head of the Anthropology Department for 10 years and Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii 1967-69. A prodigious author, he wrote several books, including the Complete English-Māori Dictionary (1981), English-Māori and Māori-English Dictionary (1990), and edited the Cook Islands Dictionary (1995). He edited the recently released work Nga Iwi Tainui – The Traditional History of the Māori People.

Emeritus Professor Margaret Loutit, of Dunedin, has been awarded an OBE for services to science. Professor Loutit, highly regarded in her field of soil and water microbiology, has recently retired as the inaugural director of the Research and Development Office of the University of Otago, a position she held since retiring from a personal professorship in the Department of Microbiology at the university. She is on the board of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.

Dr William Simpson, Christchurch, managing director of the Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand from 1978 to 1992 was awarded an OBE for services to the wool industry. As WRONZ leader of textile chemistry 1965-76, and assistant director 1976-78, he was responsible for the growth and development of the organisation from a small scientific laboratory into an international centre for wool research.

A New Zealander, and Honorary Fellow of The Royal Society of New Zealand, who is now Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, Professor Graeme Davieshas been knighted in the British New Year’s Honours list. Sir Graeme, 58, was made a knight bachelor for his services to higher education in Britain. An engineering specialist who was brought up in Auckland, Sir Graeme has lived in Britain since 1962. One of his major achievements was reforming higher education in Britain, bringing together universities and polytechnics under one funding system.

Teaching live from the Antarctic

Antarctic science research was brought live into 40 New Zealand schools late last year as part of teaching a ‘live curriculum’ using the latest information technology. The pilot project, Linking Education with Antarctic Research in New Zealand (LEARNZ 95), brought some of the fascinating stories of New Zealand’s science research in Antarctica from scientists and teachers on the ice direct into the schools by computer and phone. LEARNZ 95 was a joint initiative by three Antarctic agencies based in Christchurch: the International Centre for Antarctic Information and Research (ICAIR), the New Zealand Antarctic Programme, and the Antarctic Visitor Centre. Participating primary and secondary schools first received a package of teaching materials on four aspects of Antarctica. Regular e-mail enabled students to complete exercises on changing ozone levels and weather conditions in the Ross Dependency. In November, authors of the material, Pete Sommerville of ICAIR and Sally Burgess of the Visitor Centre, visited the Antarctic where they talked directly to students via four telephone conference calls from Scott Base, Discovery Hut, Lake Vanda and from inside a snow shelter. Research done by scientists Sylvia Nichol of NIWA on ozone and Jenny Webster of ESR on environmental studies became the focus of two teaching modules. Antarctic research is again planned to be brought live into New Zealand schools this year. LEARNZ 95 teaching materials, including Antarctic pictures and conference call transcripts, are accessible on the World Wide Web at: http://www.icair.iac.org.nz/~psommerv/web/homepage/homepage.htm

Sir Robin Irvine to head Antarctic Institute

Emeritus Professor Sir Robin Irvine has been appointed by the Government to chair the Interim Management Board of the New Zealand Antarctic Institute, Prime Minister Jim Bolger has announced. Sir Robin currently chairs the Ross Dependency Research Committee (RDRC) and the board of the International Centre for Antarctic Information and Research (ICAIR). While developing a strategic plan for our Antarctic scientists, Sir Robin has at the same time built up the international profile of the Research Committee. The five other members of the Interim Board to work with Sir Robin will be Christopher Mace, Sue Suckling, Dr Basil Walker, Dr Ron Heath and Dr Clive Howard-Williams. The board will report to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade and work with a change management committee of officials to oversee the set-up of the Institute. Executive support for the board will be provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Antarctic Policy Unit.

Zonta award address

The contact address for inquiries by women scientists wishing to apply for the Zonta Science Award for women scientists in non-medical areas is : Zonta Club of Wellington, Box 10-274 Wellington. Further details of the award were published in the previous issue of Science Digest. Applications close in early March.

Weather and climate conference

The Meteorological Society of New Zealand is holding a four-day conference in Auckland from 18-21 November on weather, climate and its impacts. Called ‘Weatherwatch ’96, The Business of Climate’, the conference aims to draw together weather and climate scientists with members of the business, engineering and planning communities to focus on weather and climate projections on all time scales, and their effects. The conference will be held at the University of Auckland’s Tamaki campus. Contact: Weatherwatch ’96, c/- Box 109695, Newmarket, Auckland, ph (09) 375-2050.

Women in science conference

A conference ‘Science – Women and our Future’ is being held from 29-31 May, 1996 in Wellington by the Association for Women in the Sciences. Among the keynote speakers will be Kathleen Lennon, prominent British philosopher of social science and feminist theory, Dale Spender, author and speaker in the fields of language, communications, writing and equity, and Dell Wihongi-Te Rarawa, founder and inspiration behind the ethno-botanical gardens in Tamaki Makaurau, Auckland. Contact: Helen Hancox, 86 Daniell St, Newtown, Wellington, Ph and fax: (04) 389-2578, E-mail: hancox@actrix.gen.nz.

New Futures Trust head

Malcolm Menzies has been appointed the new chairperson of the Futures Trust following the retirement of Professor James Duncan, the founder of the Trust. Mr Menzies was a senior policy analyst with the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology who was responsible for developing and implementing the processes for the Government’s recent research priority setting for the Public Good Science Fund. Last month he took up a position as business development manager with Victoria Link Ltd, Victoria University’s contract research and consultancy company.

Honorary doctorates

Neil Ashcroft, professor in physics at Cornell University in the United States, is to receive an honorary doctorate of science from Victoria University. Professor Ashcroft, whose research in solid-state physics has been internationally acclaimed, received an MSc from Victoria in 1961 and gained his PhD at Cambridge. He was last year elected by The Royal Society of New Zealand as an honorary fellow.

Bill Robinson FRSNZ, the inventor of novel technology to protect structures from earthquakes, recently received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University. The lead-rubber bearing which Dr Robinson invented has been used in earthquake protection of the restored Parliament Buildings and in the new Museum of New Zealand building, as well as in many earthquake-prone buildings and bridges around the world. He is a former director of DSIR Physical Sciences.

Workshop on climate change

A climate change workshop to inform advisers to regional and national government, industry representatives, scientists and the public about the current state of knowledge regarding climate change is to be held in Wellington on 11 March 1996. The workshop called: ‘Climate Change – IPCC ’95 and Beyond : current scientific knowledge and its relevance for New Zealand’, is sponsored by the Royal Society’s New Zealand Climate Committee and the NSS Committee for Climate Change. The meeting will follow-up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its recent major assessment of the world state of knowledge about climate change . The IPCC report, delivered to a meeting in Rome in December, concluded that enhanced emissions of greenhouse gases and small particles from human activities are probably already affecting global climate. The report said: ‘The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.’ Dr David Wratt, convener of the Royal Society’s New Zealand Climate Committee, who was New Zealand representative at the meeting, said this was a significant shift by the IPCC. In 1990 they were only prepared to say that observed climate warming, which was consistent with the ‘greenhouse effect’, might also be explained by natural climatic variations. The workshop will be held at the West Plaza Hotel, Wakefield Street, Wellington. Participants in the IPCC review process will summarise its findings, discuss their relevance to New Zealand, and comment on related recent and planned research. For further information, contact Sue Usher at the Royal Society.

Briefing given to delegate of Mururoa visit team

Professor Alan Poletti, the New Zealand participant in an international committee to investigate the effects of French nuclear testing, was briefed by Royal Society scientists in a forum organised by the Society on 19 February. Professor Poletti of Auckland University’s Physics Department, has been appointed by Government to represent New Zealand on a committee of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA will over the next two years carry out an ‘environmental assessment of nuclear testing at Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls’.

The Royal Society organised the forum to ensure that Professor Poletti, a nuclear physicist, would be aware of all scientific concerns held by experts in relevant fields such as geophysics, nuclear science, marine biology and human health. Forty scientists came from universities, crown research institutes, and government departments.

The forum was opened by the Deputy Prime Minister, Right Hon. Don McKinnon. The keynote speaker was John Marshall from the Australian Geological Survey Organisation (AGSO).

Professor Neil Curtis, Vice-President of the Royal Society, said the meeting had been a success, and essential views had been heard and discussed. Six-monthly follow-up meetings are to be held, so Professor Poletti can report back, and the New Zealand scientific community can be kept up to date on progress.

New science adviser to Minister

Stephen Goldson has been appointed as Science Adviser in the office of the Minister of Research, Science and Technology, Hon. Simon Upton. Dr Goldson, an insect population ecologist from AgResearch, has been seconded to the new position for three days a week. This allows him to continue his work on the biological control of the Argentine stem weevil. Dr Goldson was a member of the 1992 Science and Technology Expert Panel which set national science priorities.

HB Polytech renamed

Hawke’s Bay Polytechnic will soon be known as Eastern Institute of Technology, subject to approval from the Minister of Education, says polytech council chairman Tim Twist. The institute would most likely be known as ‘EIT – Hawke’s Bay”.

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Ian Axford knighted in New Year

Science has been honoured in the New Year’s Honours list with the knighthood bestowed on Sir Ian Axford and honours granted to other scientists.

Sir Ian Axford FRS who becomes a knight bachelor is an eminent space scientist and science administrator who is chairman of the Marsden Fund for basic research.

Sir Ian says he believes his honour reflects the growing recognition and respect New Zealand has earned within the international scientific community.

His knighthood is the latest in a series of high honours he has received. In 1994 the Royal Society awarded Dr Axford the country’s top science award, the New Zealand Science and Technology Gold Medal. He was named 1995 New Zealander of the Year and in January 1996 had a DSc (Honoris Causa) conferred by the University of Canterbury.

Since 1974 he has been a director of the Max-Planck Institute für Aeronomie in Germany. Sir Ian has achieved an international reputation for his contribution to space research. The institute has been involved in many space research probes including the current Galileo probe to Jupiter, a Russian mission to Mars, a number of United States space flights and a mission to study explosive events on the sun.

Sir Ian retired as chairman of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology last year.

New lobster find rushed to publication

A new species of rock lobster (crayfish)–a close relative of the New Zealand rock lobster Jasus edwardsii–has been discovered in the eastern South Pacific Ocean, over a century since the previous new species of Jasus was discovered.

However, it took less than three months for the scientific paper describing the species to be published in the New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, published by The Royal Society of New Zealand.

Journal editor Jaap Jasperse says the specimens were collected in June-July 1995 by a New Zealand fishing boat two-thirds of the way to Chile on remote seamounts southwest of Easter Island.

The authors of the paper, Rick Webber of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and John Booth of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, who named and described the rock lobster Jasus caveorum, submitted their paper in October. In a major co-ordination effort between editor, referees, authors and printer the paper was published in the journal’s December 1995 issue.

The new rock lobster was named after Joe and Helen Cave of Stewart Island who found the specimens. There may be considerable commercial interest in the new edible lobster although it is far from any fishing port. Mr Cave has reported that a second visit to the seamount rise in the last month had found a ‘commercially viable’ haul of the new lobster species.

Dr Jasperse says that the speed with which this important paper was published made a mockery of the often-heard complaint that ‘it takes years to publish a paper in a scientific journal.’ The average time from first submission to printing in the seven Royal Society journals ranges from six months to a year.

International researchers come to NZ

Some New Zealand university departments are now attracting post-doctoral research fellows from many countries — a change from recent years when there was a dearth of post-docs doing research in this country.

A photograph of 17 post-doctoral fellows at the University of Otago’s Biochemistry Department hailing from 10 countries is shown in the November issue of New Zealand Bioscience.

The department’s head, Associate Professor Mervyn Smith, says the relatively large number of post-doctoral researchers within Biochemistry is due to the research funding which projects undertaken by academic staff are able to attract.

Traditionally post-docs tend to follow research funds which have been more readily available in places such as the United States. Now, he says, with the advent of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and the increasing recognition of the need for high level research within our own institutions, more funds are available for research positions here and the situation is reversing.

‘The atmosphere within our department has changed enormously with the presence of a large group of research fellows,’ says Professor Smith. ‘There has been a snowball effect… Once you bring in the skills and the research output increases you tend to attract more top level researchers.’

The post-docs come from the following countries: Australia, Austria, France, Germany (2), Holland, Japan (2), Malaysia, New Zealand (4), United Kingdom (2), United States (2). Professor Smith says four fellows are expected soon including one each from Finland and Canada.

Pear-nashi cross found by research

A new pear which is a cross between the traditional European pear and the Japanese nashi has been developed by HortResearch scientists. Scientist and fruit breeder, Allan White, says the new pear combines the flavour and shape of the European with the crisp texture of the Japanese and was an ‘amazing, delightful fruit’.

It was ‘exciting science’ finding that the two pears were compatible, he says. A few trial seedlings were being offered to growers.

The new cultivars appeared to be resistant to pear black spot and would also begin to bear commercially after three or fours years, much earlier than European pears.

Other new fruit varieties have been established. Two new blueberry varieties are being made available to garden centres throughout New Zealand. They are ‘tasty blue’ and ‘blue magic’, which have been selected from a range of characteristics such as ornamental and landscaping value as well as their fruiting ability.

A large red sweet plum called ‘fortune’ has also been recently made available. Hawke’s Bay scientist Mike Malone says the fruit size is impressive–mean fruit weight was 150 g, with some weighing 200 g.

Improved varieties of the cherimoya, a high-priced niche-market fruit which can fetch up to $50 a tray in Japan, are also becoming available.

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