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