How Kiwi chemists found the right formula for success
New Zealanders have never won Nobel Prizes in literature, economics or peace but we shine in science.
As Professor Sir Peter Gluckman stresses in his introduction to the new book, Scientific Sleuthing: Chemical Discoveries Made in NZ, our three Nobel Prize winners – Ernest Rutherford, Maurice Wilkins and Alan MacDiarmid – were research chemists. New Zealand has about 1000 research chemists. They largely work out of sight. This book is an attempt to bring them into public view.
Our chemists are proud to have invented instruments that rapidly and exactly measure the amount of poison in our honeys, and to have developed a super-sniffer that detects dangerous or unwanted volatile chemicals with astonishing sensitivity (one molecule in a quadrillion) in manufacturing processes, in medicine, environmental monitoring, homeland security, and checking insecticides and fumigants in shipping containers.
Chemists research cancer up and down the country but 85 of them staff the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre where they have spotted a number of promising anti-cancer compounds.
New Zealand chemists’ invention of spreadable butter was a watershed in world dairy technology.
Special paints have been developed in New Zealand to withstand all the salt that blows in from the sea, the high levels of UV light, and sulphur in geothermal areas. Special corrugated iron paints have also been invented here.
New Zealand ceramics have come a long way since the kitchen crockery in the 1950s.
Sixty years of experiment have produced super strength nitroceramics used in industrial cutting tools, in molten aluminium foundry operations, for bearings and thrusters in rocket engines.
Forensic chemists at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) investigate crime scenes, look for evidence in bloodstains and paint flakes from car crashes and hit and runs. They identify alcohol, drugs or poisons from road crashes and post mortem examinations, and identify a huge range of everchanging illicit drugs.
ESR employs 40 people at its DNA facility in Auckland where they manage more than 200,000 personal DNA files and have helped solve several long-standing criminal cases.
The book contains chapters on radiation, X-rays, soil chemistry, geothermal steam, superconductors, nanotechnology, and many other topics.
You can read its 208 densely packed pages at several levels. Get the gist of our chemistry by skimming through the 300-odd illustrations or diagrams, and reading the captions. Or you could read large sections in comprehensible English. Or, if you have a degree in chemistry, you can work your way through page after page of complex chemical formulae or engineering detail.
The tone of Scientific Sleuthing is rather jingoistic and patriotic: ‘‘Propelled to international standing... In their chosen fields, NZ chemists lead the world’’.
So because nobody takes much notice of our cutting-edge research chemists, the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry has produced this book to show off some of its members’ achievements, and to give them a very well-deserved pat on the back. This book is full of curious information. ❚ Scientific Sleuthing: Chemical Discoveries Made in New Zealand, by the NZ Institute of Chemistry, Clerestory Press, $39.95.