Professor praises early teachers
Marston Conder, a maths professor and medal recipient, attributes his success partially to his education at Matamata College.
At a ceremony where he was awarded the Hector Medal, the Auckland University professor said he had had a great education at Matamata College and Waikato University.
The science award is presented to a researcher for outstanding work in chemical, physical or mathematical and information sciences by the Royal Society of New Zealand. Previous winners include Ernest Rutherford, who split the atom.
Conder remembered two Matamata College maths teachers, Alasdair McLean and Don Darke.
‘‘ Alasdair was a hard taskmaster but he knew the subject very well, and I’ll never forget one of his favourite expressions: ‘Mathematicians are lazy people’. As he explained, what he meant by this was that we should look for quick and clever ways of solving problems, rather than taking the long way round,’’ Conder said.
‘‘That message has stuck with me for years, and been very helpful, even though I don’t follow the advice as well as I’d like to sometimes.’’
He also attributed his success to his parents. ‘‘Both of them had to leave school when they were 14, to help out on their family farms [when times were very tough]. But both of them had quite a lot of academic ability, and encouraged my sister Maura and I to do well at school,’’ he said. He also attributed playing maths games at home to helping him in his career.
Successes that stand out for Conder throughout his career include winning the senior mathematical prize at Oxford University, being promoted to professor in 1993 when he was only 38, being elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand five years later and then president of the RSNZ Academy in 2006.
More recent successes include winning a James Cook Fellowship, which allowed him to spend two years in fulltime research and then being selected as the first Maclaurin Lecturer to make a tour of universities in the United States at the invitation of the American Mathematical Society.
The Hector Medal is given to someone who has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of a particular branch of science. Most of Conder’s mathematical research is in a branch of algebra called group theory.
He said what he is best known for is the development of new techniques for constructing objects of particular types with the largest possible degree of symmetry. This has involved a mixture of theory and computational experiments.
Conder said most of his work is fundamental but he is ‘‘frequently surprised when I find out an unexpected use of my work, in some other branch of maths or in some completely different subject.’’
He had a PhD student who used his ideas from a thesis to help a holiday rental company in New Zealand decide how to position and re-position its campervans in the most efficient way possible. By doing this, the company not only reduced its costs by 10 per cent, but also increased its revenue by the same amount, he said.
The Royal Society of New Zealand is an independent organisation that promotes science, technology and the humanities in New Zealand. The group awards New Zealand researchers in those fields with various medals and funding.
MEDALLED MATHEMATICIAN: Marston Conder, a Matamata College
alumnus, has received the Hector Medal from the Royal Society of New Zealand.