How Kiwi chemists found the right for­mula for suc­cess

The Press - - Catalyst -

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.

BOB BROCKIE OPINION

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