Kiwi played key role in Euro­pean Space Agency, and has an as­ter­oid of his own

The Dominion Post - - Obituaries -

Harry Hind­marsh Atkin­son, who has died aged 89, was one of those able New Zealan­ders who went over­seas to study, fully in­tend­ing to re­turn but, due to their great suc­cess in their adopted home­lands, never did so.

A physi­cist by train­ing, he moved into science ad­vice and ad­min­is­tra­tion in Bri­tain and rose to con­sid­er­able heights both within the UK Gov­ern­ment and also in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Euro­pean Space Agency.

He was born in Welling­ton into a prom­i­nent fam­ily, his grand­fa­ther be­ing Harry Al­bert Atkin­son, four-time prime min­is­ter from

1876 to 91. His fa­ther was Harry


Atkin­son, head of the NZ Patent

Of­fice, and his mother was Con­stance Hind­marsh Shields.

When he was 12, his fa­ther re­tired, mov­ing the fam­ily to Nel­son where, at Nel­son Col­lege, Atkin­son was en­cour­aged into science by Thomas Hill Easter­field, foun­da­tion pro­fes­sor of chem­istry and physics at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity of Welling­ton, and ini­tial direc­tor of the Cawthron In­sti­tute.

Atkin­son en­tered what is now the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury in 1948, tak­ing a BSc and an MSc with honours in physics. He then de­cided to study over­seas, in 1954 ar­riv­ing at Cor­nell Univer­sity.

He stayed only 18 months; he thought the usual term for a PhD in the United States, at per­haps five years, was too long.

Aim­ing high, he wrote to Neville Mott, Cavendish pro­fes­sor of physics at Cam­bridge Univer­sity, a chair held pre­vi­ously by Ernest Ruther­ford. Per­haps helped by the New Zea­land link, Mott of­fered him a small schol­ar­ship.

For his re­search project, Atkin­son stud­ied the way al­loys fa­tigue un­der re­peated stress, con­duct­ing ex­per­i­ments in­volv­ing neu­tron scat­ter­ing at the Atomic En­ergy Re­search Es­tab­lish­ment at Har­well, south of Ox­ford, fi­nally sub­mit­ting his PhD the­sis in 1959.

He con­tin­ued at Har­well for a few years be­fore shift­ing to the ad­ja­cent Ruther­ford Lab­o­ra­tory, re­main­ing there for seven years as head of the gen­eral physics group.

In 1968, he ac­cepted sec­ond­ment to the staff of the UK’s chief sci­en­tific ad­viser in the Cab­i­net Of­fice, ne­ces­si­tat­ing his old friends and col­leagues in New Zea­land be­ing in­ter­viewed (as Atkin­son put it) ‘‘by mack­in­toshed chaps’’ to en­sure he had no sus­pect pol­i­tics or back­ground.

Dur­ing his years in White­hall, he pro­vided ad­vice on top­ics rang­ing from the su­per­sonic Con­corde air­craft through to en­vi­ron­men­tal mat­ters. In one re­port he wrote that the coun­try­side was be­ing ‘‘de­stroyed’’ by farm­ers rip­ping out hedgerows; the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture in­sisted in­stead that it say the land­scape was be­ing ‘‘mod­i­fied’’.

In 1972 he left the Cab­i­net Of­fice, and

Har­ry­atkin­son [is] a rocky body about 10 kilo­me­tres across, which or­bits be­tween Mars and Jupiter.

be­came head of the as­tron­omy and space di­vi­sion of the Science Re­search Coun­cil. Un­der his stew­ard­ship the UK con­sid­er­ably ex­panded its re­search in th­ese ar­eas, in­stalling ma­jor optical tele­scopes in the Ca­nary Is­lands and Hawaii, and en­hanc­ing the ra­dio tele­scopes near Manch­ester and Cam­bridge.

From its cre­ation in 1975, Atkin­son played a piv­otal role in the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) as UK del­e­gate. From 1981-84 he was vice-chair­man, and from 1984-87 chair­man, of the ESA Coun­cil. A ma­jor suc­cess was ESA’s Giotto spaceprobe en­coun­ter­ing Hal­ley’s Comet in 1986; Atkin­son was present at its launch.

From 1979, he held other high-level po­si­tions within UK science, mak­ing fre­quent vis­its to Nasa head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton. He at­tended the maiden launch of the space shut­tle in Florida in 1981, and its land­ing two days later in Cal­i­for­nia.

Dur­ing the 1980s, he also over­saw the op­er­a­tions of sev­eral nu­clear physics re­search in­sti­tu­tions in Europe, semi-re­tir­ing in 1990. There­after, he was chief sci­en­tist at the Loss Preven­tion Coun­cil of the British in­sur­ance in­dus­try.

Ifirst met him in 2000. He had been asked to chair a UK gov­ern­ment task force on near-earth ob­jects (as­ter­oids and comets com­ing per­ilously close to our planet), for which I was an ad­viser. He and his team pro­duced an im­por­tant re­port, with on­go­ing ef­fects: there are space­craft mis­sions cur­rently con­duct­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions of a cou­ple of large Earth-ap­proach­ing as­ter­oids.

In fact, he has an as­ter­oid all of his own. In 2006, the In­ter­na­tional As­tro­nom­i­cal Union named (5972) Har­ry­atkin­son, a rocky body about 10 kilo­me­tres across, which or­bits be­tween Mars and Jupiter.

Atkin­son had a for­mi­da­ble, wide-rang­ing in­tel­lect, and took an in­ter­est in the as­tro­nom­i­cal work of his an­tecedents in Nel­son. His great-un­cle, Arthur Sa­muel Atkin­son, was a lawyer who had built a large home, Fair­field House, in the 1870s. Arthur was keen on as­tron­omy, and ob­served the tran­sit of Venus in 1882, and the so­lar eclipse in 1885. The largest of his in­stru­ments was the Atkin­son Tele­scope, which was only re­cently re­tired from the Cawthron Atkin­son Ob­ser­va­tory, and is now a mu­seum piece.

Harry Atkin­son lived for many years at Bamp­ton, west of Ox­ford, also hav­ing a hol­i­day home in France. He and Anne, his wife of 60 years, had one daugh­ter, Kather­ine, and two sons, David and Bene­dict.

Never for­get­ting his New Zea­land ori­gins, in his last email to me he wrote that he was en­vi­ous of my be­ing in Nel­son. His fi­nal years were blighted by de­men­tia but Anne, in later mes­sages, said he of­ten rem­i­nisced about New Zea­land. – By Dun­can Steel, Cen­tre for Space Science Tech­nol­ogy


Harry Atkin­son in 2012, and aged 15 at Nel­son Col­lege. De­spite his many years in Bri­tain, he rem­i­nisced of­ten about New Zea­land.

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